A man in a dark coat and wide-brimmed hat made his way across the stage Sunday evening at Threshold Repertory Theatre, scarf wrapped about his face. He carried his titular cognac and roses, taking great care to set down the latter as he poured himself a glass to toast a grave before him.
“Cognac & Roses: A Toast To Edgar Allan Poe” puts its best foot forward in its opening opening with the historical account of the mysterious “Poe Toaster,” who brought roses and offered a toast of cognac to the gravesite of Poe every year for decades. This introduction, beyond immediately offering an explanation for the production’s title, set expectations clearly: This is a celebration of the man and his work, executed with care by its actors.
On a stage set only as much as it needed to be, the throughline of the selections became immediately apparent. These were not only the pieces that audiences are familiar with, but ones revolving around elements that appeared to represent the humors of Poe. It would be tawdry not to include “The Raven” in some capacity, but “Cognac & Roses” dutifully reminded audiences that there is much more to the work of Poe’s quill than those well-known pinions.
The limited set was used to its fullest, even including a method by which to actually build up Montresor’s cellar wall in “The Cask of Amontillado” (something not only rarely seen, but rarely seen completed on a stage at all). The set, in all its ambitions, used its rear projection to the fullest with “The Pit and the Pendulum,” but in the haste to use it during scene transitions, an apparent lack of technical rehearsals became clear as visible mouse cursors and toolbars littered the video. Like other aspects of the show, it could be easily fixed with time and consecutive performances, but seemed to suggest a rather slap-dash rehearsal period.
In costuming the production, the decision was made to dress actors not in full period-accurate regalia, but rather to simply evoke the imagery of both the time and Poe’s sensibilities. Whether it was due to time constraints or a lack of available hands, multiple costume pieces appeared not only anachronistic but freshly opened, covered in a grid of wrinkles as if the actors had only put them on for the first time. While this is quickly and easily remedied, the contrast between these and the more carefully presented costume pieces can be ignored no more than a staccato heartbeat under the floorboards.
There was plenty of ambition on the stage, both in the performances and in Christine Eliason’s direction of the classic tales. While ambition is surely nothing to condemn, the devil is in the details, and it appears that there may have been multiple points where fresh ideas overtook other work.
One of the most egregious examples of these overlooked details was in how the production portrayed “The Cask of Amontillado.” In something that would have become a quick director’s note given more time to hone the production, the two actors in the tale pronounce the titular wine in wildly different ways. If intentional, it betrayed elements of the original characterization. If accidental, it was an oversight quickly remedied by a careful rehearsal period. Compared to the great attention to detail in Fortunado’s story-accurate hat, this minor oversight came across as especially strange.
In all, “Cognac & Roses” is a fun romp through Poe’s works, with actors and a director who clearly care about their work. While it still has much to iron out (both figuratively and literally), it’s certain to age well over the course of its run, becoming a fine vintage in its own right.
IF YOU PLAN TO GO: Shows at 7 p.m. May 31, 9:00 p.m. June 3, 3 p.m. June 6, and 9 p.m. June 9. Tickets range from $20 to $25.
C.M. McCambridge is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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