The Tell-Tale Heart

How well does this 1843 short horror story work as a 2022 stage play?

By Andrew Andrews

Sean Meehan in Denizen Theatre’s production of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, directed by Andy Gaukel with design by Tim Lord, Rachael Balcanoff, Julian Blackmore and Sam Kaplan. Original photo by Daniel Albanese.

Poe.

Just saying the name is enough to send shivers down the spine.

Famous for his poetry and short stories, Edgar Allan Poe only wrote one play, and it wasn’t The Tell-Tale Heart.

Until now.

Just in time for spooky season, Poe’s short Gothic horror story has evolved into a play, with its unreliable narrator recalling his actions with stuttering repetition, proving his own mental instability as he attempts to disprove it.

“Am I mad?” he asks. “Observe how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

But there isn’t a moment of calm to be had.

Beginning with a gallery of artwork inspired by the tale in the lobby, and continuing with a keyhole exhibit of teatro lambe lambe that accompanies the presentation, this production turns Poe’s macabre 2,000 word essay into a short performance for thirty audience members at a time.

A lot has happened in the horror genre over the nearly 180 years since The Tell-Tale Heart was first published: from Bram Stoker’s Dracula near the turn of the last century, to Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic approach to filming, to the slasher films of forty years ago and the Asian black comedy thrillers of today.

How much can be done, then, to turn a dated one-page story into a play that lives up to modern expectations, while remaining as true as possible to the original source?

It turns out, quite a lot.

From the minute you hear the murderer making uncomfortable noises behind the curtain, to the first time he peeks through the red velvet and mutters to the audience, to the instant when he finally pulls back said curtains to reveal the catastrophe they hide, actor Sean Meehan will have you mesmerized, the way Jack Nicholson entranced millions with his performance in The Shining.

Intensified by extreme lighting and sound effects that appear and dissolve with stop-on-a-dime precision, and a set design that employs a more ingenious use of shredded newspaper than you can ever imagine, Poe’s archaic tale has been transformed into a completely modern work of darkness, and it’s every bit as good as anything on today’s silver screen.

Normally, I would quibble that thirty bucks is a bit much for a very short play with only one actor, especially when the script is in the public domain. But in this case I’m willing to let that slide, considering the overall quality, energy and bursting originality of this production.

Coupled with a visit to a haunted house, corn maze or costume party, The Tell-Tale Heart is the perfect way to celebrate the approach of Halloween.

5

Andrew Andrews attended The Tell-Tale Heart at Denizen Theatre in New Paltz on Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 7:00pm to write this review.