Aug 30, 2012


At this point in time, nearly 170 years after his mysterious death, there is nothing more that needs to be said about Edgar Allan Poe. He is the Shakespeare of the macabre, and his prose remains as beautiful as it is intimidating. He’s been a constant source of inspiration for an array of artists – from H.R. Giger to Roger Corman – and he’s as popular today as he’s ever been. From the little seen but frankly wondrous episode of "Masters of Horror" entitled "The Black Cat," to that production's crew of director Stuart Gordon, writer Dennis Paoli, and actor Jeffry Combs as the tortured writer touring with a one-man show, to the recent big budget The Raven, Poe-inspired projects are constantly coming along to whet the appetites of his legions of devotees.

In this new collection of Symphony Space's Selected Shorts, seven of Poe’s most celebrated short stories and poems are performed before a live audience, and the 2-CD set begins and ends with a bang.

Terrence Mann opens the proceedings with a truly manic reading of “The Tell Tale Heart,” reciting the tale not as if reading from a text but more like confessing his crimes to the law. He allows his mania to grow and grow, pausing to disturbingly giggle for just a bit too long in order to unnerve his audience, who laughs nervously in response to the shtick. Poe is mostly known for his detailed approach to all things horrific, but not so much his use of humor, and thankfully Mann helps to shine a light on that particularly lesser known attribute of his writing. Admittedly it wasn’t until listening to these recordings, all backed by a live audience, that I was able to see for the first time just when and where Poe was trying to insert a little levity into his usually darkness.

Probably the most beautiful thing Poe has written, the next track is “The Raven,” which is curiously performed by no less than four orators: René Auberjonois, Fionnula Flanagan, Isaiah Sheffer, and Harris Yulin. Each person certainly serves the tone of the poem well, and the readings are pitch-perfect, but it’s a curiosity that four different individuals opted to read such a brief piece. It’s not quite enough to be a distraction, but it comes awfully close.

Next up is “The Masque of the Red Death,” performed by Fionnula Flanagan. The story itself was never a favorite of mine, as Poe spends a bit too long describing the level of opulence within the quarantined mansion (he was the Bret Easton Ellis of his day). However, Flanagan does an admirable job with the material, even ticking off the elongated details – one after the other – as if she were tediously reading off a list. She wisely insinuates in her performance that the magnitude of the wealth shared by the story’s few should be just as exhausting as it is intricate.

Following that is “The Cask of Amontillado,” performed by David Margulies. He is another reader who brings to life the subtle humor often overshadowed in Poe’s work by his more morbid details. Margulies' performance as the story’s victim, Fortunato, provides most of the humor, depicting the man as an emaciated drunk prone to fits of coughing. Much like Terrence Mann’s reading of “Tell Tale,” Margulies lets a particular string of coughs go on for so long – nearly 20 seconds – that it becomes absurd, and the audience laughs in appreciation.

And then we have a reading of “The Bells,” performed by the foursome team of Auberjonois, Flanagan, Sheffer, and Yulin. However, this time, the multitudes of voices contributing to the poem truly bring it to life, especially at the end when each performer's voice begins to overlap the next, until their unintelligible reiterating of "the bells!" actually begin to sound like just that – clanging church bells. The audience's caught-off-guard and impressed response adds to the effectiveness of this tactic and it makes the experience much more enjoyable. Continuing with this troupe, "Annabell Lee" recalls my feelings toward their readings of “The Raven.” Well done across the board, but again curious that such a brief piece is read by three people (Flanagan sits this one out).

Popular character actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Public Enemies) reads “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and the actor somehow sidesteps the gravely voice for which he’s known and performs the story with a smoother, almost higher-pitched voice. He hints at a British accent to help transport the listener to the land where the poor main character’s sentence has been handed down by a row of black-cloaked judges.

Lastly, we have the other standout track of this collection: Auberjonois’ reading of “The Black Cat.” His frantic unfolding of the events of the story, peppered with the main character’s insanity, build to an impressive climax of madness and relief. “The Black Cat” is another example of Poe’s humor subtly shining.

Audio recordings of Poe have existed for years, perhaps most famously the ones performed by Vincent Price. And because Poe's works are public domain material, my guess is there's an awful lot of recorded material to sift through. However, this edition of Selected Shorts is one of the best. And with Halloween coming up (fist pump!), it's a perfect time to grab this new set.

More info on Symphony Space.

About Selected Shorts (from the Press Release):

Selected Shorts, the acclaimed short story series recorded live in performance at Symphony Space and broadcast nationally on public radio, is releasing a 2-disc set highlighting 8 of the most popular short stories and poems from Edgar Allan Poe on September 1, 1012.

Poe! is a deliciously gripping sampling of the mad imagination of 19th century gothic master of horror and suspense, murder and mayhem, Edgar Allan Poe. The creepy, breathtaking, and soulful classic tales include: “The Masque of the Red Death,” the terrifying and ironic story of a nobleman who attempts to seal himself and his friends away from a terrible plague raging outside, performed by Fionnula Flanagan (Transamerica); “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a hair-raising first-person account of a man in a torture chamber during the Spanish Inquisition, performed to a fare-thee-well by Stephen Lang (Avatar); “The Black Cat,” in which a man’s dead pet comes back to haunt him, performed by Tony winner Rene Auberjonois (Boston Legal). Plus there are dreamy, mesmerizing and haunting readings of Poe’s wonderfully-atmospheric best-loved poems, “The Bells,” “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”

These thrilling performances will leave you breathless and happily terrified.

The 2 CD set contains:

The Tell-Tale Heart performed by Terrance Mann

The Raven performed by René Auberjonois, Fionnula Flanagan, Isaiah Sheffer and Harris Yulin

The Masque of the Red Death performed by Fionnula Flanagan

The Cask of Amontillado performed by David Margulies

The Bells performed by René Auberjonois, Fionnula Flanagan, Isaiah Sheffer and Harris Yulin

The Pit and the Pendulum performed by Stephen Lang

Annabel Lee performed by René Auberjonois, Isaiah Sheffer and Harris Yulin

The Black Cat performed by René Auberjonois

Selected Shorts is an award-winning, one-hour radio program featuring readings of classic and new short fiction, recorded live at New York’s Symphony Space and on tour around the US. Each week on public radio stations nationwide, great actors from stage, screen, and television bring short stories to life. One of the most popular series on the airwaves, this unique show is hosted by Isaiah Sheffer and produced for radio by Symphony Space and WNYC New York Public Radio, and distributed by PRI. Selected Shorts is broadcast on 143 public radio stations nationwide for 300,000 listeners weekly. The podcast has over 300,000 iTunes subscribers.

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