Fringe 2009, Waimapihi Reserve
February 20-28 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

GOING to a Three Spoon Theatre production is a theatrical treat – intelligent, creative and unabashedly dramatic. A Most Outrageous Humbug, while being a very different offering to their past productions (March of the Meeklings, The Storm, The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party) continues to maintain the very high standard this young company is setting.

Humbug sees the Three Spooners tackle the gothic via an ‘imaginative biography’ of Edgar Allan Poe. The question of what lurked behind Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque is explored, although mercifully the company does not stray into biographical determinism. The depth of their research into Poe’s ‘life marred by tragedy’ is evident, but the imaginative rendering of scenes gives the play an immediacy that other biographical works often lack. Poe is portrayed as a divided self, consumed by ardour and ambition, enslaved to his vices – far from the ‘master of his own actions’ he proclaims himself to be early in the play. The line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred in his life (and his art?) and this is brilliantly realised on the stage under the direction of Charlotte Bradley.

The cast is uniformly excellent, capturing moments of absurd humour and thrilling pathos deftly. Jean Sergent, as Elizabeth Poe, Edgar’s doomed mother, sings beside a piano played by Tane Upjohn Beatson (who composed the show’s music) as we take our seats. Her drunk and abusive husband, the failed actor David Poe (Adam Donald) enters and an ugly confrontation ensues. This is observed by Thomas McGrath, as Poe the narrator, viewing the scenes of his life and works with retrospective detachment. His alter ego – Poe the actor/active, played with conflicted intensity by Ralph McCubbin Howell – acts out these scenes with a devastating inevitability, capturing Poe’s destructive bent. Adrianne Roberts and Alex Lodge play the two women in Poe’s life, the writer Fanny Osgood and Poe’s young wife (and cousin), Virginia. The division that pervades Poe’s life extends to these women – he is intellectually attracted to the dignified Osgood, but finds comfort and companionship in the sweet ‘Sissy’. Lodge’s grumpy entry bearing ink for Poe was hilarious. Poe’s heartbreak after his wife is claimed by the menacing hooded ‘Red Death’ (tuberculosis) is evident of his dependence on her. The cast is rounded out by Ed Watson as Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who as Poe’s rival and sometime benefactor, exhibits some of the best comic evil eyebrows I have ever seen. Donald and Sergent return to play various roles throughout the play, including the riotously funny and bizarre Dr Carr and Caroline Fether.

Setting the play in the Waimapihi Reserve was a stroke of genius – it is an isolated spot that allows you to fully plunge into the mid-nineteenth century ‘world’ that the company has created as well as creating some excellent opportunities for dynamic staging. McGrath’s Poe often observes from the rook of the old shack that forms a backdrop, and cast members are seen walking around the forest between scenes. The rain on opening night only added to the atmosphere as it grew dark. The entire effect is complemented by Dawa Devereux’s fantastic period costumes – the subtle transformation between Virginia’s dress as a child bride to her wifely attire was especially impressive. I also now avidly believe that cravats should come back into style.

The Fringe season is now sold out – but if there is any way you can get a ticket you should – this should not to be missed.