TV's Astin to tell tale of Poe

Transformation: The `Addams Family' star explores the darker side as he takes on the role of the famous writer.

April 18, 2003|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

John Astin doesn't mind being identified with Gomez Addams, the "creepy and kooky" character he played for years on television's The Addams Family.

"I loved the show and enjoyed playing the character, and have no problem with the identification. In many ways Gomez is an extension of my own inner life - there's an awful lot of me in Gomez," Astin says.

Having moved on to a demanding and fulfilling theatrical career that includes teaching, acting, writing, directing and producing, Astin will take the stage in Annapolis this month to portray a very different character, 19th-century American author Edgar Allan Poe. He will perform the one-man show April 25 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Moving from Gomez Addams to Poe is not the stretch it might seem, Astin says.

"When I first put the Gomez role together, I was a big fan of Charles Addams' cartoons and tried to analyze what he was doing," Astin, 73, said in a recent interview. "I concluded Addams was trying to wake us up to the wonder of daily life, and I based Gomez on that idea.

"To me it's interesting to compare Gomez and Poe. Gomez was fascinated with the wonderful details of life, and so was Poe. In a way they are two sides of the same coin with Gomez essentially the humorous side and Poe, although not without humor, the deeper and more serious side."

Much of Astin's attention over the past five years has gone to touring in the United States, Australia and Ireland in Edgar Allan Poe - Once Upon a Midnight, re-creating this visionary poet blessed with enormous gifts and possessed by demons.

Having realized in graduate school that Poe was trivialized by modern criticism, Astin is on a mission to restore the multidimensional reputation of Poe, not only as a lyrical poet and the inventor of the detective tale, but also as America's first accomplished literary critic and cosmologist.

Describing the subject as "enormous," Astinsays, "I refer to Poe as the first American genius. His obsession was to comprehend the meaning of life, and most of his work in one way or another is an exploration into the human condition.

"Because there's both darkness and light in the human condition, he must explore the darkness if he's going to understand everything. Consequently, we have some dark stuff. Poe also wrote what he considered his masterwork, a long prose poem he called Eureka, that is Poe's venture into cosmology, where he tries to explain the universe and anticipates the relationship between time and space fully half a century before Einstein.

"He presents a general proposition close to chaos theory [which holds that everything is in random motion], and he has an explanation for darkness at night - why we don't see all of the infinite number of stars."

Although Poe and his theories were belittled in his day and later trashed by literary critics such as T.S. Eliot, Poe has recently emerged victorious. He is more popular among contemporary scholars such as John Irwin of the Johns Hopkins University, and a paperback of Eureka is available.

Astin, who has five grown sons, and his wife, Valerie, have residences in Baltimore and Los Angeles. He teaches acting at Hopkins, where he is trying to build a theater program, and wants to turn the Hopkins Studio Players into an important entertainment force in the community. Astin hopes that the surrounding counties soon have a chance to see the Hopkins Studio Players.

Astin says he looks forward to bringing his show to Annapolis, so near Baltimore, where Poe lived for a time and is buried.

Touching on Poe's reputation as an alcoholic, Astin says, "Poe was probably allergic to alcohol and one drink would affect him. A compulsive person, Poe could never have accomplished his voluminous output had he been a regular drunk. He was visited with so much tragedy that it was almost inevitable he would occasionally turn to the bottle.

"More than anything, the play humanizes Poe so that we can see him as a human being in the midst of life and not as a remote icon. For example, in Eureka we try to distill the most accessible essence so one gets the sense of it and comes away from the play understanding the importance of that work to Poe's life."

Astin is quick to add that "understanding is the byproduct. The evening has to be entertainment of a high order. Poe was a very witty man, so there's a fair amount of humor. For an hour and 45 minutes there is an intense journey through a man's life and art, loves and demons."

For information on the show, visit the Web site www.astin poe.com; for tickets call Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts at 410-263-5544.

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