Review: Poe Readings

Selected Shorts:
“The Black Cat” and other readings

Stories and poetry by Edgar Allen Poe

In the fall of 2009, René participated in a reading, before a live audience, of poems and stories by Edgar Allen Poe. The Harry Ransom Center (HRC), a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin, commemorated the bicentennial of Poe’s birth with an exhibition called “From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.” The exhibition featured materials from the Harry Ransom Center and the Harrison Institute/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, plus additional materials from the Free Library of Philadelphia and other museums. “From Out That Shadow” was on display at the Ransom Center from September. 8, 2009 through January 3, 2010.

In connection with the exhibition, the HRC also hosted a “Poe Film Series”, guided tours of the gallery exhibition, lectures, and the live reading of Poe’s work, entitled “Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Storyteller”, sponsored by The Big Read, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest.

The reading took place Thursday, September 24, at 7:00 p.m., at Jessen Auditorium in Homer Rainey Hall, and was hosted by Isaiah Sheffer, the co-founder and artistic director of Symphony Space and director and host of National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts program. In addition to Mr. Sheffer, the other performers for the evening were Fionnula Flanagan and René.

Below are some photos and two reviews of the performance, plus a link to a recording of the webcast from the University of Texas at Austin.
(Above two photos courtesy Harry Ransom Center Photography by Anthony Maddaloni)
Review by Mary Shaver

The University of Texas at Austin was kind enough to offer a live webcast for those of us unable to attend the performance. Watching on the webcast offered a different perspective from those who were in person for the event. The camera was set up at the back of the auditorium and was fixed, so the viewer had a limited view of the entire room. Rather like seeing in tunnel vision. Some manipulation of the ‘zoom’ option helped considerably. It was similar to seeing from the front row as opposed to the back row.

As to the performance itself, René looked fantastic, dressed all in black. Isaiah Sheffer, host of “Selected Shorts” on NPR, introduced René and actress Fionnula Flanagan.

My overall impression of the evening was one of great contrast. Fionnula’s readings were subtle and understated. Isaiah read with verve and enthusiasm. But I never forgot that both were “reading.” Their eyes travelled from the script to the audience and back.

René’s readings were more like watching a theatrical performance. He moved around, he gesticulated, and though he had a script, I don’t recall that he ever referred to it. I could see the way he drew the audience into the world he created. Viewing this, but not being present to fully experience it, made me think I was watching something wonderful from the outside Ð like through a window. These are my reflections on two of the works that René read.

“Annabelle Lee”

René took this well-known poem and made it seem brand new. He provided a window into Poe’s “kingdom by the sea,” and brought to life the innocence and enchantment of young love, a love which ultimately survives death. “Annabelle Lee” is a poem designed to be as simple and uncomplicated as the love it portrays–yet René reached deeper to bring out the undercurrent of richness and texture. Thanks to René, “Annabelle Lee” was transformed into a work that projects sweetness and sadness and tenderness.

“The Black Cat”

This short story, told in first-person singular, is the tale of the descent of a good man into madness. The tale chronicles a man who describes himself as “noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition.” He proclaims himself as being especially fond of animals.

He married and soon populated his happy home with a small domestic zoo. His favorite pet, however, was a black cat he named Pluto. After several years of contentment and the special affection of Pluto, he admits to becoming an alcoholic (for reasons not stated). Drink altered his mood, and he became abusive and violent toward his pets, with the exception of Pluto. After one night of extreme intoxication, however, he took his anger out on Pluto, gashing out one eye. The cat recovered, but the guilt and bitterness of seeing the results of his drunken act ate away at him until he was finally driven to hang the cat from a tree.
(Photo courtesy Harry Ransom Center Photography by Anthony Maddaloni)

The next night his house burns, leaving only one standing wall, where his bed had sat. Imprinted in the plaster of that wall was the image of a large cat with a noose about its neck.

Remorse and the need to assuage his guilt prompted the man to find another cat that resembled Pluto. He found one in (surprise) a drinking establishment. The only difference is this cat has an indistinct white mark in its breast. He also discovers after he brings it home that this cat also only has one eye.

Far from bringing him peace, this new cat arouses all his old hatred and anger. This is exaggerated by the cat’s evident fondness and friendliness toward the man. It’s presence drives him to distraction, and one day, while visiting the cellar of the house with his wife (and the seemingly ever-present cat), he becomes so enraged that he grabs an axe to kill the cat. His wife stays his hand, and in a fit of fury, he cleaves his wife’s head open with the axe. Striving to conceal his act of murder, he walls her dead body up in the cellar. After a few days, the police investigate her disappearance and, searching the cellar, hear half-human cries from behind a wall. Breaking open the wall, they discover the woman’s decomposing body–and sitting on her head, the Black Cat!
(Photo courtesy Harry Ransom Center Photography by Anthony Maddaloni)

What I found astonishing, watching a 6-by-8-inch image on my computer screen, was how René managed to simultaneously convey the grandeur of a theatrical performance, while at the same time making it seem like he was telling a “ghost story” to a tremulous group of children huddling around a campfire. I found myself cringing and jumping and my heart beating out of my chest as he told this story. It was awful and compelling and horrifying all at the same time.

René conveyed this man’s pain, anger, desperation, remorse, and self-condemnation. René WAS this wretched, tortured man. For all the writer’s self-proclaimed attempts to convey the facts of the events of his life in a coldly clinical manner, the horror of what he had done was made manifest through René.

“The Bells”

The performance was finished up with René teaming with Fionnula and Isaiah in the reading of “The Bells.” This was the reading equivalent of the sort of harmony one usually equates with singing. Their voices combined to make you almost believe you were, in fact, hearing the bells peeling out their story.

To summarize, it would have been wonderful to see this fantastic performance in person, but with that option not possible, having the ability to watch via the webcast so thoughtfully provided by the University of Texas was a great alternative. Having seen René in person, I know first hand how his very presence generates an electricity and a vibrancy that reverberates throughout the audience. That was missing from the webcast. But even through the medium of the camera, an echo of that electricity arced into my home, making for compelling viewing.

In December, a recording of the webcast of the performance was posted on the website of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Enjoy!
Review by Marguerite Krause

When I called the HRC about a month before the performance to ask about ticket prices, the nice people there explained that the auditorium had about 300 seats and the event would be free and open to the public, with doors opening 30 minutes before starting time and seating offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Unfortunately, they didn’t know how popular the event would be, and could only suggest that we arrive “a little early” if we wanted to be sure of getting a seat.

In the days before the performance, my husband Mike and I debated back and forth about whether or not it was likely that the show might attract a full house and, therefore, whether or not we really needed to go to Jessen Auditorium much before 6:30. On the one hand, it was a free performance on a university campus, which meant it might draw budget-minded students as well as students taking classes in American literature or theatre. On the other hand, how big of an audience could a public radio program like Selected Shorts really attract on a Thursday night?
(Photo by M. Krause)

In the end, we decided to err on the side of caution. We would go to the university neighborhood in midafternoon, find a place to park, locate the auditorium, generally case the joint, and then pass the time strolling around campus, maybe shopping or checking out a museum or something, before we had to go back and get in line (if there was one) to get into the show.

Thursday afternoon was gray and rainy, but we had an umbrella (Mike) and raincoat (me) and were able to park only two blocks from the HRC. We found our way there, and saw that Homer Rainey Hall, where the auditorium was located, was just across the courtyard from the HRC. It was about 4:15 p.m., so we doubted there would be anything to see yet, but we went up the stairs and tried the doors anyway.

The building doors opened onto a small lobby. And there were already people in line for the evening’s performance!

Mike and I claimed our place in the line and settled down to wait. The “lobby” for the auditorium was really just a wide spot in the building hallway. The auditorium was entered by two sets of swinging doors, each door having a round glass window slightly above my eye level (though I’m short, so I imagine they were at eye level for whoever designed the doors.).

The people in line around us were very nice. We chatted with some of them, and eavesdropped on other nearby conversations, and learned with people had come to the show for a variety of reasons. Some were lovers of Poe, or literature in general, and others were fans of “Selected Shorts” or regular listeners to NPR. Many were familiar with René’s work in TV or film and were specifically looking forward to seeing him. The first woman in line had arrived at 3:15 p.m., and people continued to arrive steadily after us: from the half-dozen or so present at 4:15, the line grew to perhaps 20 by 4:45, and by 5:30 there were over 75 people there, in a line that stretched all the way down the hall and out of sight. A young woman from the HRC supervised the line, handing out tickets to each person as they arrived. We learned that about a third of the auditorium was reserved for guests who would be attending a dinner at the HRC after the performance, which meant that the number of free seats available was even more limited than usual. The young woman also helped us to pass the time by periodically asking the crowd Poe-related trivia questions, and awarding paperback books to whoever knew the answer.

Around 5:00, I noticed a man with several cameras around his neck enter the auditorium and soon, through the round windows, we saw the flashes of photos being taken. It turned out that the cast was inside, rehearsing. Several people (including me) couldn’t resist going over to the windows to peak in for a few minutes. Standing on tiptoe, I could just see the stage, with René at stage right, Ms. Flanagan in the center, and Mr. Sheffer to her left. They each had their own microphone, a music stand for their scripts, and a stool to sit on. They seemed to be talking through the order of the program, and the photographer was setting up to take some photos. I let someone else have a turn at the window and went back to my place in line.
(Photo courtesy Harry Ransom Center Photography by Anthony Maddaloni)


The doors were opened for the audience a little early, at 6:15, and everyone hurried in to pick what they considered the best seats. The reserved section stretched from center stage to the stage right wall (René’s side of the stage) and back about 10 rows. Some people who entered ahead of us ran for front row seats, but Mike and I took places close to the back edge of the reserved section, which felt comfortably close but not too close. As more people entered, we heard a number of disgruntled complaints about the size of the reserved section. Apparently, at past events, ordinary patrons found themselves stuck at the far back of the auditorium while seats marked “reserved” stayed empty the whole evening because the people they’d been reserved for never showed up.

By 6:40, almost all the free seats were occupied, and a few latecomers were wandering up and down the aisles, searching for a place to sit. Fortunately, at about this same time, the guests with the reserved seats started to arrive, immediately identifiable because they were all dressed in classy, suitable-for-a-banquet attire (unlike most of the rest of the audience members, who wore typical college campus jeans-and-sweater outfits). Between 6:50 and 6:55, the entire reserved section filled up, and the performance began in front of a completely full house.

One of the event organizers started the evening by giving a short introduction for Isaiah Sheffer, who came onstage with René and Fionnula behind him, to general applause. Isaiah introduced Fionnula with a brief biography and mentioned her upcoming movies, and the audience applauded. Then, Isaiah said René’s name, and everyone applauded; he mentioned Boston Legal and something about René “enduring hours of make-up for his role as ‘Odo’ in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and people cheered and applauded again. René had a sort of “Oh, please!” look of surprised pleasure at getting such a response.

Ms. Flanagan opened the program with the poem, “Alone,” after which René gave a heartfelt reading of the short poem, “To Helen.” The rest of the readings, if I remember the order correctly (and I may have forgotten a poem or two), were “The Masque of the Red Death,” read by Fionnula; “The Sphinx,” read by Isaiah; “Annabel Lee,” read by René; “The Raven,” read by Isaiah; “The Black Cat,” read by René; and “The Bells,” read by the whole cast.

As Mary mentioned in her review, René’s performance was outstanding. Fionnula has a lovely voice, and Isaiah was also a pleasure to listen to; his readings brought out elements of humor in both “The Sphinx” and “The Raven” that I’d never noticed before, from simply reading the texts myself. But René didn’t simply read his pieces; I’d have to call what he does more of a dramatic-interpretive performance.

In “The Black Cat,” in particular, René did a wonderful job of engaging the audience. In places where Poe’s narrator addresses the reader of the story, René peered into the audience and spoke to us with such intensity, as if he was hoping to engage all of us in conversation and elicit our understanding and sympathy, that I almost expected someone to reply to him! Although, fortunately, that didn’t happen, he did hold the audience’s rapt attention from start to finish. At humorous moments he got a range of responses, from scattered chuckles to widespread laughs, as suited the particular moment. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum was the place in the story where the narrator describes how he got into a drunken rage, dug his penknife out of his pocket, grabbed his cat, and gouged the animal’s eye out of its socket. This description is vivid and horrific thanks to Poe’s masterful writing, of course. But in addition, René put such violence into the way he performed the scene, from the force of his gestures as he went through the motions of each action to the dark, vicious rage in his voice, that I could feel the whole audience around me cringing, some of them averting their eyes from the stage, as if they were trying to escape what they were hearing — as if René was forcing them to see the violent deed through the absolute clarity with which he performed that moment in the story. It was absolutely stunning.
(Photo courtesy Harry Ransom Center Photography by Anthony Maddaloni)


At the end, as the narrator realizes that he has walled the cat in with his wife’s corpse, René fell into a sort of wheezing, hysterical laughter for the last words of the story. Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, René “turned off” his performance, his expression becoming instantly blank, and sat down. It was as clear and decisive an ending as a black-out or suddenly dropped curtain at the end of a play. There was a brief pause of utter silence, and then the audience erupted in applause.

As soon as the applause began to fade, Fionnula and Isaiah stood up and, when the audience quieted down, René launched into the first verse of their group reading of “The Bells.”

After the performance (and a standing ovation), the three of them exited stage right, and about a minute later emerged through a side door into the auditorium, where they spent about 15 minutes chatting with well wishers and signing autographs. Then their escorts from the HRC appeared and took them away to attend the banquet.
(Photo by M. Krause)


Mike and I consider ourselves very lucky to have been able to see this performance in person. All of the readings were entertaining but René, as so often happens, was outstanding. We left Austin filled with eager anticipation for whatever the next project may be in which René will get to exercise his marvelous gifts as an actor.
Curtain call, acknowledging the raven perched on the set
(Photo courtesy Harry Ransom Center Photography by Anthony Maddaloni)