Actor Jeffrey Combs didn't want to play the role of author and poet Edgar Allan Poe, and certainly not in a one-man show. But like a character in one of Poe's tales of madness and doom, a chain of circumstances led to his fate. Unlike Poe's characters, however — or even the fate of Poe himself — the result has been a triumph.
On Jan. 19, the 203rd anniversary of Poe's birth, Combs will bring his portrayal of America's original goth icon to the main branch of the Nashville Public Library for one night only. Nevermore — An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe reunites the team of Combs, director Stuart Gordon and writer Dennis Paoli, the trio responsible for Re-Animator, the 1985 cult classic based on the work of horror pulpmeister H.P. Lovecraft — a devilishly witty splatterfest that combines green goop, living corpses and a severed noggin full of lustful thoughts. Since then, the trio has collaborated on other Lovecraft adaptations, and Combs has revived the amoral and overly enthusiastic Dr. Herbert West for two Re-Animator sequels.
With his horror film credits and his history of playing an entire Federation of alien characters in the Star Trek franchise, history buff Combs was looking for a more human, non-horrific historical personality to play when he started down the road to Nevermore. "I came across a biography of Poe, and I really resisted." Combs told the Scene in a telephone interview. "But as I started reading I was completely captivated. I became perplexed why no one has tried to make a movie of this man's life. I mentioned this to Stuart — and then a year and half later, I get an email with a script attached."
That script was for an episode of the Showtime series Masters of Horror, "The Black Cat," based on Poe's story of the same title but incorporating the author as the protagonist. "We did the episode," Gordon told the Scene in a separate interview, "and Jeffrey was so incredible. I really started feeling like I was on the set with Edgar Allan Poe. That got me thinking that it would be really wonderful to share that with audiences — let them be in the same room with this crazy genius."
Combs initially balked at the idea of a one-man show. But due to the downturn in television and independent film production, Combs found financial challenges to be a motivator, just as they were for Poe. "I wanted to do something to empower myself," Combs said. "So I called Stuart."
They soon settled on a re-creation of Poe's recitals, a common venture for the author in the wake of his success with "The Raven." After compiling the stories and poems they wanted to use, Combs and Gordon turned the material over to writer Dennis Paoli. "He came back with an absolutely incredible string of things that Poe actually said or wrote," Combs said, "either in his letters, essays or literary criticism. We used that to bridge all of the set pieces, and it worked seamlessly."
The story of Nevermore coalesced around one particular recital by Poe from 1848, where he recited directly to Sarah Helen Whitman, a well-to-do widow, poet and spiritualist he was courting. Their union would have provided Poe with financial security, but that was not to be.
"Because of his drinking problems, the relationship ended," Gordon said. "[Poe] wrote about what he called the 'imp of the perverse,' which was this idea that whenever things are going well you just have to do something to mess it up." Poe's self-destructiveness became the main focal point, acted out over the course of one evening.
Nevermore opened in Los Angeles in 2009 for a four-week run but ended up playing for six months, to rave reviews and a packed theater. Since then Combs has taken Nevermore to various locations, including New York's Lincoln Center and the small chapel in Baltimore where Poe is buried.
"It has been an unbelievable, surprising success," Combs said. "Leading up to that was a long string of lonely months of learning. I've done over 75 stage plays but never a one-man show. It's like prison. Once I'm on stage, the audience is my other actor. They're who I'm interacting with, but it's getting there. There's no camaraderie when it's just you and the script walking around talking to yourself."
Combs credits Gordon as the anchor that helped him to make it through the isolation of preparing for the play. Although Gordon also has an extensive background in theater as a director — he founded Chicago's legendary Organic Theater Company, whose credits include the world premiere of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago — Nevermore is the first non-film production they've worked on together.
"What comes to mind with Stuart on this project is Yoda," Combs said. "He surprised me, because he's so hands-on and opinionated when it comes to film. And he was with this too, but he was also supportive, gentle and just Zen. We didn't have a lot of pitfalls. Our initial decisions really did fall into place. It was remarkably meant to be."
Gordon is equal in his praise of working with Combs. "The thing about Jeffrey that I love is that he is constantly surprising me," he said. "He will take an idea and go in a whole different direction than I ever imagined, and it's really just brilliant. And the other thing is that he is such a chameleon. He can just about be anyone. When we were shooting 'The Black Cat' I was in the elevator going down to the set, and this weird guy got in the elevator with me. It took me 10 minutes to realize it was Jeffrey Combs."
Combs is especially looking forward to performing Nevermore in a Southern city on Poe's birthday. "Poe was not from Baltimore; he was from Virginia," he explained. "There are anecdotes of his gentility, Southern hospitality and gentlemanliness, so to be in Nashville, Tennessee, is quite appropriate."
Admission is free for Nevermore in the Nashville Public Library's auditorium. Seating will be available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Performance time is 7 p.m., with a reception preceding the performance at 6:15. And in honor of Combs' visit to Nashville, even though he won't be able to attend, The Belcourt will screen special midnight shows of Re-Animator this Friday and Saturday, Jan. 20-21.
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