Across town from the glitz and glamor of the Kennedy Center, in the nondescript Playbill Cafe, a cast of three brings the audience to the edge of their seats by dramatizing the works of Edgar Allen Poe in the Meat and Potato Theater’s production of Poe 2000.
True to its mission of “utilizing forgotten, ignored or distorted theater styles . leaving the lasers shows and flying effects to the superficiality of rock concerts,” playwright/director/actor Tobin Atkinson and fellow actors Katie Taylor-Rollins and Jeffrey A. Wisniewski succeed in bringing about a different and unique perspective to the twisted and macabre psyche of Poe.
The recitation of Poe’s The Raven under black light allowed Atkinson to convey his character’s emotion through haunting neon lenses under the inescapable piercing fluorescent gaze of his dead lover. The emotional tension broke with the obnoxious screeching that marked the entrance of “the raven,” a disturbing stick puppet that looked like it was on loan from an elementary school haunted house. Nevertheless, Atkinson’s ingenious use of black lighting set the stage for an unconventional tour of Poe’s most famous work.
By far the silent and surprisingly humorous performance of The Tell-Tale Heart was the best of them all. In her portrayal of a seductive 1950s housewife, Taylor-Rollins demonstrated an immense capability to communicate through cartoon-like facial expressions and body language. A simple easel at center stage held cue cards with one word prompts that helped to evoke the humorous tone of the speechless story line.
Departing from the traditional Venetian setting of The Cask of Amontillado, Meat and Potato moves the story to the 1993 Cannes Film Festival proving that a good old-fashioned murder can take place anywhere-with the help of alcohol. Atkinson and Taylor-Rollins invite the audience into their theatrical world through insults and flattery directed towards the crowd. As Atkinson leads a “shit-faced” Taylor-Rollins into the dark dungeon, he seeks to punish her for spreading rumors that he “couldn’t get it up.” By chaining his prey in an alcove, he entombs her behind a carefully laid brick wall, sealing her doom. Atkinson leaves to return to the party, stopping for a moment to reflect on the act just perpetrated. While the audience expects remorse, he simply exclaims, “bitch.”
In an interview with The Hatchet, Meat and Potato founder and principal playwright Tobin Atkinson expressed his disappointment that modern theater attempts to recreate the special effects and shallowness that the “MTV generation” has come to expect.
“A lot of theaters are the same. Meat and Potato seeks to be free and different, to return to the basics, and to get away from mainstream theater,” he said.
Atkinson hopes that unlike television, he will be able to convey a human story by relying on genuine talent rather than flashy spectacles.
A member of the Army, Atkinson had tours of duty around the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. He draws on this experience in the final act through a chilling rendition of The Pit and the Pendulum set during the current war in Iraq. Dressed in black, Wisniewski joined Taylor-Rollins and Atkinson, to control a simple, faceless puppet, which represented an American soldier taken hostage by terrorists in Iraq. By leaving the puppet void of expression, the audience must form their own impressions of his emotions, as he faces torture and fights insanity until his eventual rescue.
While a fancy dining experience can be a treat, sometimes you just can’t beat a good homemade meal. The Meat and Potato Theatre, one of the newest players on the D.C. theater scene, promises to deliver just that.
Poe 2000 is playing at Playbill Cafe, 1409 14th St. N.W. until Oct. 30. Tickets can be purchaed by calling 703-587-5730.