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A Historic House Opens Its Doors to the Words of Edgar Allan Poe

Jenna Rossman (center) in 'Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe'
Jenna Rossman (center) in ‘Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe’ (all photos courtesy Glenn Ricci)

BALTIMORE — An immersive theater experience based on the brooding writing of Edgar Allan Poe is reopening a historic Baltimore house that has been closed for a decade. Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe launched its run in the Enoch Pratt House owned by the Maryland Historical Society last month, with the two-hour show being the first public event since 2004.

Exterior of the Enoch Pratt House
Exterior of the Enoch Pratt House (click to enlarge)

Enoch Pratt was a Baltimore businessman and philanthropist, whose cultural support still endures in such local sites as the Enoch Pratt Free Library. After dark in recent months, people walking by his 1840s Mount Vernon neighborhood home might have been startled to see a man in a top hat entering the front door, or a ghastly pale woman pressed to the window, knowing the house had been shuttered for years. It was given to the Maryland Historical Society in 1916, and long used for public tours and programming, but the institution’s evolving collections required the building of a more modern museum.

“All efforts turned to this development and, more than a decade after the new, modern facilities opened, attentions have now turned back to the Pratt House,” Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society, told Hyperallergic. “As we approach our 175th anniversary, the Society is aiming at turning the four-story Enoch Pratt House, one of the best surviving 19th-century houses in the city, into an adaptive, state-of-the-art education center.”

Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe has an audience of just 25 a night, who are invited inside to freely explore as six actors perform “six overlapping two-hour plays,” as co-producer, co-director, and concept creator Glenn Ricci describes it. “We worked hard to create the sense of a populated world, buzzing with activity and more events than an audience member could see in the first couple visits,” he explained. A detective named Auguste (played by Alexander Scally) hunts for meaning in the death of a young woman named Marie Rogêt drowned in the Seine, a fictionalized event that Poe based on the real death of Mary Rogers in New York, both mysteries figuring into the play. Other characters similarly blur between Poe’s phantasmagoric fiction and history, such as his wife Virginia who died at the age of 24, played with an eerie presence by Natanya Washer who dies and resurrects in the show.

Staging 'Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe' in the Enoch Pratt House
Staging ‘Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe’ in the Enoch Pratt House
Chandelier in the Enoch Pratt House
Chandelier in the Enoch Pratt House

Poe himself is not present, but is everywhere in the atmosphere. The historic home’s architectural touches conveniently align with the period when he lived in Baltimore. There’s a looming staircase, ornate chandeliers, and a central hallway from which all the action revolves, including a genuinely unsettling séance scene and quieter moments like a mysterious stranger called V. (played by Tanner Medding) discovering a disturbing bricked up wall that recalls “The Cask of Amontillado.” “You can tell that the performers are relishing their time in the space,” Ricci added. “As the run continues, they keep discovering new aspects they can use and new ways to engage with the audience.”

A small team put together Mesmeric Revelations, with support from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance’s Rubys Artist Project Grant. Ricci co-directed with Susan Stroupe and co-produced with Ursula Marcum, while Michele Minnick was the movement director, essentially propelling the piece through the unconventional stage. In both its local collaboration and partnership with the Society, the project is an exciting example of how historic spaces can be animated and made accessible through artistic experiences. As Alexandra Deutsch, Chief Curator of the Maryland Historical Society, stated: “Being in the Pratt House in itself is like stepping back in time, and the production helps guide you into the past.”

Shannon Graham and Tanner Medding in 'Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe'
Shannon Graham (R) and Tanner Medding (L) in ‘Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe’

Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe continues at the Enoch Pratt House of the Maryland Historical Society (201 West Monument Street, Baltimore) through May 1.

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