The House on Poe Street by Fengar Gael, directed by Katie McHugh in a production by the Yonder Window Theatre Company, is full of whimsical humor. Partly a modern love story, it also teases the audience by suggesting mysterious undertones. For example is the titular house the structure where Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Raven”? And do spirits haunt the Gothic setting?
The set’s contrasting reds and blacks, elegant curtain, furniture, chandelier, and suggestive Poe artifacts pique our imagination. They, the firmly established macabre tone, and other artistic effects induce us to accept the plot and characters. Above all, the striking visuals massage us into readiness for the unique, the playful, the offbeat. In this, the production delights.
Gael introduces the play’s issues through the remarks of the privileged, well-heeled Mendel Steingold, a wealthy lawyer hired to settle the Seaborg Estate. Gregory Jensen rounds out Mendel with judicious care. The character’s narrow, materialistic views humorously appall. As Mendel narrates the tale of the weird twin sisters who inherited the house, we question his views. Conversely, we empathize with the strange twins.
Gael cleverly leads us to accept the unacceptable about Argonne and Fluorine Seaborg and their mother. Their scientifically based names suggest their parent’s penchant for laboratories and science. In fact we almost pity them for their Dr. Frankenstein-like mother, as Professor Seaborg’s eugenics experiments gave rise to her remarkable genius daughters. Mendel views them as bizarre. Indeed, they unsettle every nerve in his conservative being.
Significantly, Mendel reveals Argonne and Fluorine Seaborg’s impact on him, his friends, and his fiancee, Samaria. Argonne (Olivia Nice) and Fluorine (Eliza Shea) believably mine the sisters’ eccentricity. An effective Tamara Geisler portrays Samaria, and Daniel Light and Gadi Rubin portray Mendel’s friend and Sam’s brother respectively. Meanwhile, the latter two male friends become involved with Argonne and Fluorine, who become their girlfriends. The mix turns into a humorous disaster.
Ruffled by the gender-bending Argonne and Fluorine, Mendel becomes entangled in their mission to convert the house into a Poe museum. Consequently, he reads Poe’s gothic short stories at Samaria’s suggestion. But the horror stories fuel his fear of the twins. At humorous moments he notes the relationship between objects in the house and the same ones in Poe’s stories. Furthermore, his increasing annoyance with the two “wackos” blooms into alarm when atheist Samaria becomes their friend as they attempt to identify the ghost that haunts the house.
To woo teacher and Poe-lover Samaria away from the elitist Mendel, the twins entertain her with lyrical songs adapted from Poe poems. Samaria becomes enchanted. She increasingly prefers their egalitarianism to Mendel’s fearful tirades against Argonne, Fluorine, their crazed mother, and “pedophile” Poe. (Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm when she was 13.) When the twins invite a medium (Laura Johnston) to speak with the spirits who haunt the house, Mendel convinces himself that the twins’ psychosis has played itself out. He fights with Samaria. Subsequently, they break up.
Chastened by Samaria for his egregious views, Mendel begins to live a self-examined life. But the twins prove their true colors. Following in their mother’s footsteps, they engineer a substance which converts bellicosity into empathy. Unfortunately, the Seaborgs used Mendel’s friends as guinea pigs for their experiment, unbeknownst to them. The results are hilarious.
By the play’s conclusion Mendel has grown more loving, wiser and more empathetic, having thrown off his elitist, conservative mantle. The twins return to the house, where we catch up with the events that have transpired in their lives. Generously, the twins bestow the house on Mendel and Samaria. The lovers reconcile. At this juncture medium Lithia Nickels finds the house absent of otherworldly entities. Thus, the dwelling now may become the place where the couple will reside, after a few renovations.
The plot jumps into liveliness at the introduction of the mysterious ghosts. The lyrical singing by the twins maintains a sweet charm. The music composed by Sheila Rae adds a memorable beauty to Poe’s rhymes. Moreover, the fantastical elements move the play beyond easy delineation. For the play combines elements of mystery, fantasy, science fiction, poetry, and song with an original scenario that surprises.
The realistic themes reveal currency. The affirmation that Mendel’s love for Samaria redeems him and that such an elitist personality may refine itself with introspection is welcome at this time. What fun to watch an obnoxious cultural conservative who embraces the most regressive policies apologize and admit to the necessity of self-transformation.
Special kudos to director Katie McHugh and Set Designer Pei-Wen Huang-Shea and the rest of the creative team. They refine and enhance the production elements and make them fit Gael’s clever dynamic. The House on Poe Street concluded its run on 12 November. I hope it will appear at other venues. It deserves a look-see for its artistry, whimsy, and originality.