One Man Poe
"That horror guy" Jeffrey Combs gets to be so much more as the literary master of the macabre
The last thing actor Jeffrey Combs was looking for was another horror role. Not, he hastens to add, that he isn't "humbly grateful" for the lengthy list of horror and sci-fi movie and TV credits that began with his indelible turn as nerdy mad-scientist manqué Herbert West in director Stuart Gordon's 1985 cult classic Re-Animator. "But at the same time . . ." he begins, pauses, and begins again. "It's a palace, and it's a prison. I want variety. I don't want to be thought of as 'that horror guy,' I want to be thought of as a versatile actor."
But as he relates over the phone from his California home, he was poring over biographies and historical novels about five years ago looking for a historical character to develop and happened across an Edgar Allan Poe biography. "I was so intrigued by his life story--a tragic but brilliant man," he says. "And I sort of saw that there were physical similarities--I'm his height--and with a little bit of tweaking, I could probably pull it off."
That revelation eventually culminated in Nevermore: An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe, a one-man show starring Combs as Baltimore's most famous man of letters, which comes to town this week as part of the city's annual Poe celebration.
Gordon not only gave Combs his first big break, casting the then-unknown in Re-Animator and its follow-up From Beyond, he helped the actor, now 55, make his Poe possible. Combs recounts that he shared his revelation about Poe with the director and a year or two later was presented with a finished script for an adaptation of Poe's "The Black Cat," co-written by Gordon and his Re-Animator/From Beyond writing partner Dennis Paoli. Commissioned as part of Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series, the script made Poe himself the protagonist, weaving actual details of the author's life (his wife Virginia dying young, his poverty, his alcoholism) into a re-imagining of his classic tale of obsession, murder, and guilt. The 2007 movie boasts Gordon's trademark copious gore and impish wit, but also Combs giving it his all as a Poe shot through with plenty of ordinary desperation and dread, in addition to the supernatural kind.
Combs says Gordon suggested during production that he could do a one-man Poe show, but that might have been the end of it if it weren't for the real-life horror of the economic downturn. "[The work] just went away," Combs says. "So I'm sitting there going, I've got to do something. I can't just sit here. And so I contacted Stuart and he immediately jumped on it."
A series of brainstorming sessions in early 2009 led to Gordon getting in touch with his old writing partner. When not turning out scripts, Paoli teaches writing and literature at New York's Hunter College, including courses on Gothic lit. Working from a short list of Poe works Combs and Gordon hoped to include, Paoli created a script that, again, combined numerous elements of Poe's actual life along with his writing, although this time in a different format.
"We knew that we wanted to do a recital setting, which Poe did in his life, much like a lot of [19th-century] authors," Combs says. "It was the only way they could make money, because there were no copyright laws. Once you sold your story, that's it."
Working from Paoli's script, which Combs says is "90 percent" directly taken from Poe's own stories, essays, and letters, the actor begins by recreating what might have been a typical public appearance by the author. As the reading progresses, Poe's personal travails begin to seep in between the poems and stories, offering a more comprehensive portrait of the man.
Nevermore debuted for a planned month-long run in Los Angeles in July 2009 and proved an unexpected success, extending performances well into December. Plans call for the East Coast premiere in Baltimore to be followed by other performances in theaters around the country, and Combs believes that Poe's story could be much more. "After I read that biography of Poe, I thought, Why hasn't anyone done a movie of this man's life?" he asks. "He's America's Van Gogh."
Combs certainly seems to have made peace with playing another horror role, this one especially. He clearly admires Poe's writing and his dedication as an artist. "Poe saw himself first and foremost as a poet," Combs says. "The stories were just a way to make money." That said, Poe didn't merely toss off shoddy pulp to pay the bills; he created exquisitely crafted tales that thrill readers to this day. As Combs puts it, "He said, 'OK, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to really do it.'"
That appears to be Combs' attitude about his current role, more or less. "In the [career] chess pieces of all of this, my first thought was, I'm not going to do Poe, that's just more of the same," he says. "But once it all congealed together, I was like, wait a minute, I can have the best of both worlds here. I can challenge myself, I can do poetry, I can do a one-man show, and I don't care if people initially come because they think they're going to see Herbert West. If that gets their butts in the seats, that's OK. Then it's my turn."
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