I have never been to the University Theatre. This theatre is a performance venue on the University of Wisconsin campus that hosts the performances put on by the school’s theatre and drama department. As someone generally interested in live dramatic performances, I have always intended to catch a performance at the University Theatre, but my tendency toward procrastination on attending local events over the years resulted in me failing to follow through on that intention up this point. As a result, I decided I would make some time to attend a performance at the University Theatre during my “I have never...” year. As luck would have it, an interesting performance based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe titled “An Evening With Poe” happened to fall on the Friday at the end of my unintended UW-themed “I have never...” week this month. As a result, I picked up some tickets, and I headed down to the University Theatre with Rachael this evening to attend my first ever performance by the University of Wisconsin Theatre and Drama department.
When we arrived at the theatre, I entered the building with limited foresight regarding what I would encounter. Having never heard much about the University Theatre, I didn’t know what expect from the space, from the performance, and from the actors that would serve as the focus of the night’s event. However, my familiarity with some of Edgar Allan Poe’s works made me eager to see a theatrical interpretation of some of his more famed stories and poems, which gave me hope of a great performance in anticipation of the forthcoming experience. As we found our seats within the confined quarters of the tiny theatre, I took notice of the fact the performance would unfold just feet in front of us. Against a stark backdrop of a single industrial door and two hanging structures resembling aged windows from centuries past, it was clear we were about to be part of a very intimate performance, which made me excited to see “An Evening With Poe” unfold before us.
Rachael and I bided our time by reading and discussing the performance program until the lights above us slowly dimmed, signaling the show was about to begin. A brief introduction to the performance through a dramatic scene of a leader addressing the crowd during a time of crisis and plague set the stage for the coming interpretive series of Edgar Allan Poe’s independent works. Although unimaginative, the introduction left me optimistic the core of the performance would provide a full, balanced adaptation of Poe’s masterful writings. Unfortunately, that would not turn out to be the case.
|A temporary set piece|
Over the next 90 minutes, the crowd watched on as the players took the stage in segments and acted out a breadth of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings. In some cases, the works were interpretations of the work adapted to more modern settings, whereas others acted out some of Poe’s stories in a much more literal sense. The result was a mix of loosely connected segments that struggled in transition and exposed weaknesses the production of the performance. Additionally, the performances of each segment were almost uniformly laden with over-dramatic acting that bordered on pretentious in some instances.
While it was apparent there were a handful of talented, compelling actors among the troop of performers, the remaining players seemed to think a quality performance came through emphatic and exaggerated dramatics. This occurrence was probably best captured in a passage where one of the older actors yelled sentences from Poe’s work into the open air as he stood stationary with his head facing the rafters, his lower jaw extended, and his breathing labored between lines. Stated frankly, it was strange and in some ways unpleasant to observe as he worked through the performance, which caused me to look at Rachael with a puzzled look on my face midway through the act. At times, it seemed the team of actors and producers made the odd decision that Edgar Allan Poe’s work was lacking drama, which created a mix of overzealous actors injecting unnecessary emotion into already dark, expressive works. Needless to say, my first experience at the University Theatre wasn’t what I hope it would be.
By the time “An Evening With Poe” drew to a close, I found myself more than ready to call it a night and head home. As I prepared to leave, my effort to pull my coat from the chair back behind me stirred the woman to my right out of a slumber she had fallen into some time earlier, which made me realize I wasn’t the only one left unengaged by tonight’s performance. While I will be the first to say I fully understand the excitement and desire in enacting Edgar Allan Poe’s writings, there are just some things that should likely be left alone. Perhaps my expectations for a group of theatre and acting students were too high, or perhaps I wasn’t looking “deep enough” into the artistic representation of tonight’s performance; whatever the case, today’s “I have never...” experience was not one from which I gained a lot of takeaways. With that, I can’t say I would never attend another performance at the University Theatre, but I would likely choose a performance with a more straightforward and less dramatic subject. Hopefully that would give a little less interpretive latitude to the performers, which would let me see and appreciate the talent and expertise each of them undoubtedly have. That stated, until that opportunity presents itself, I’ll simply hold off on revisiting the University Theatre.