From January 29 to 31, the Walker closes out its annual Out There festival with RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE, a striking and surreal “action opera” that examines the bizarre circumstances surrounding the final days of Edgar Allen Poe. The piece is a collaboration between director/playwright Thaddeus Phillips’s theater collective, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, and the Minneapolis-based musical duo Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Ahead of this weekend’s performances, I spoke to Phillips about his revisionist perspective on Poe, the explosive potential of stage space, the value of journeys in narrative, and more.
Sam Segal: Why Edgar Allan Poe?
Thaddeus Phillips: My interest really began when I learned about Poe’s last days being lost and confused on trains between Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York—a final train journey that led to his death. The image of him on a train in 1849 is downright fascinating. This musical action opera really starts with that image, not Poe himself. When we started to research Poe, we discovered something very different than we had been taught about him—a witty, funny, and inquisitive writer who really explored almost everything and intuited the creation of the universe. So, we put all of that in the context of an artist trying to make ends meet on a train.
Segal: Why did you decide to investigate Eureka and some of Poe’s other lesser known works?
Phillips: Poe has been locked into a cliché for all time, but when you peek behind the curtain of his known works, you discover a truly rounded, playful, mischievous thinker who played with ideas on furniture, fantasy, and the creation of the universe. It is without doubt that Eureka should be his best known work, not his brilliant, yet somewhat silly The Raven, which he wrote as a commercial hit to make money. In our US culture that, then and now, values first the commercial over the intellectual, real ideas that ask us to contemplate real questions about existence are swept under the rug for gossip, trends, and distractions.
Segal: RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE features only four cast members and a pretty limited number of props. What appeals to you about this kind of minimalist approach?
Phillips: This action opera only needs four people onstage; anyone else would be extraneous, as each of the four performers has a very defined and specific role in terms of the story, but more importantly, they each serve a specific dramaturgical and structural purpose. So, yes, this becomes a distilled minimalism that is the best tool for devising theater, as it forces the creative team to work with limited resources to maximum potential, creating an action-packed yet refined performance that relies on creativity, transformation, evocative design, and integrated music. Working minimally also allows for maximum use of each object and every inch of stage space, which makes the stage a canvas where the placement of everything has a reason and meaning and must transform from one thing to the next. RED EYE to HAVRE de GRACE is a much richer, fuller, and dynamic work, dramatically, musically, and visually, because we chose to do so much with so little.
Segal: In the program notes for RED-EYE, you include a timeline of the events that led up to the premiere of the play in April 2014. In that timeline, you place a decent amount of emphasis on when you bought the props that would eventually inspire the props you use in this production (e.g. “Oct 1997 – Phillips and Wilhelm buy a wood table for $20 under the El in Philadelphia…”). Are props and staging often the first variables you deal with in your creative process?
Phillips: This timeline is deceptive, although groundwork was laid down for this work years ago, the actual rehearsal and creation time for RED-EYE was six weeks. Objects create theater. A chair can write a show. Put it in a room. Look at it. When was it made? Who sat there? What does the chair tell you? What stories does it have? From just this chair in a space, you could devise a work using just the chair as the source material. Objects tell us a lot and are infused with meaning. When played with, objects can create an entire unexpected universe.
Segal: Could you explain the concept of “action design” and its influence on your work?
Phillips: Action design is the idea that theatrical design should move with stage action and be an integral and vital part to any theatrical work. It employs the idea of transformation and the set having a defined meaning to the content of the show, not just a dead space to hold the actors. Stage is a liquid space with more power and actually, in using action design, more technological power than cinema. Onstage you can do quicker shifts and jump cuts live in front of an audience than you can on film. Action design promotes the explosion of stage space into a magical liquid space.
Segal: How involved were you with the Wilhelm Bros. & Co. in the composition of the music?
Phillips: They composed a lot within and around rehearsals, and my role was similar to a producer of a record. Jeremy and David composed the music, but, for example, I would suggest that the song “El Dorado” be played with Flamenco guitar. This was because David lived in a cave with Gypsies in southern Spain for two years and the idea of a Quixote-esque knight is in the poem lyric. The crazy-insane-can-do-anything Wilhelm Brothers then wrote a flamenco version of the song.
Segal: What speaks to you about journey narratives? It seems like the characters in many of your plays are often in various states of transition.
Phillips: I love travel. I love being in odd places and trying to understand. When we discovered the odd facts of Poe’s last travel, they screamed to us. There is great drama in travels, especially ones that lead across the river Styx, as in RED-EYE. We take Poe, away from home, on a journey, throw him into a space with a Ranger of today who guards his old Philly house, two pianos, and all the accouterements of the theater (booms, lights, curtains, shadows, etc.), and drive home to the audience an action opera. It is the journey that drives the design, music, and action.
Segal: Finally, in the aforementioned timeline, you include the July 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson. What’s the connection between the Higgs boson and RED-EYE?
Phillips: The central idea in Poe’s Eureka is the “Primordial Particle,” which is the Higgs boson. What Poe intuited in 1849 was confirmed in 2012, the year RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE opened.
RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE runs from Thursday–Saturday, January 29–31 in the McGuire Theater at 8 pm.