Spirit of Poe inhabits actor David Keltz


Once upon a midnight dreary, while he pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

Long he wondered whom to portray, which man of genius, mad or fey,

For an actor needs personae to embody in a show,

Long he sought the perfect role that would provide some needed dough. Then

Quoth a soft voice: "E.A. Poe."

- with apologies to the creator of The Raven

"Nah," David Keltz said the first time a friend suggested that he write a one-actor play based on the writings of the master of the macabre.

Nope. Not interested. Too obvious.

True, Keltz has loved Poe since the actor was a 13-year-old boy cowering under the bedclothes in his Alabama bedroom, after having just devoured The Tell-Tale Heart.

True, Keltz lives now in Baltimore, and Poe, who died here in 1849, is Charm City's favorite son.

And true, Poe's work naturally is theatrical, because of his vivid descriptions and the relentless rhythms of his poetry. Poe's words sweep up all before them as implacably as a phalanx of soldiers marching through conquered territory.

"Poe liked short stories," Keltz says. "He always said that with a short story, once you got the reader under your spell, you could hold him until the story was over. A reader usually can't read a novel from start to finish. He puts it down to do other things, and the spell gets broken. Poe liked to create intense effects. His work is very atmospheric."

Keltz, the son of a career Army officer, became enthralled with performing in the seventh grade, about the time he discovered The Tell-Tale Heart. After graduating with a degree in theater from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in 1972, he moved to Baltimore to pursue acting full-time.

It's the rare thespian who can find year-round work on the stage. Like many actors, Keltz developed jobs for himself by putting together technically undemanding shows that can be performed in schools and convention halls.

His portfolio includes one-actor shows about Capt. John Smith, the novelist D.H. Lawrence and newspaperman H.L. Mencken. A recent character is Orson Squire Fowler, a 19th-century American phrenologist who believed (with others of his profession) that the bumps on one's head determined personality, character and criminal tendencies.

With the possible exception of Captain Smith, each character chosen by Keltz is an iconoclast who battled social norms. "They all had very strong opinions and were quite controversial in their lifetimes," he says.

But for 18 years, Keltz resisted the temptation to impersonate Poe. Finally, on Oct. 31, 1991, the actor succumbed. He donned a wavy-haired wig, a puffy-sleeved shirt and a red-and-black brocade vest and went to the cemetery where Poe is said to be interred.

"It was just awe-inspiring to stand by Poe's grave," Keltz says. "Since then, Poe has turned out to be just about the main thing that I do."

In the past 15 years, Keltz has memorized four hours of material from Poe's essays, short stories and poems. His repertoire includes such masterpieces as The Cask of Amontillado and Annabel Lee. But Keltz also delved into some of the author's lesser-known works, discovering a previously unsuspected side of the great man. A playful side.

"Who knew that Poe was a humorist?" Keltz says. "Or that he wrote a romantic comedy called The Spectacles?"

Keltz is particularly pleased that his performances at the Capital Fringe Festival will take place at the Willard Hotel, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., where Poe stayed for five days in 1843 while applying (unsuccessfully) for a government job.

"At that time, John Tyler, the U.S. president, was interviewing all the applicants," Keltz says. "Poe got very drunk before the interview and tried to sell Tyler a subscription to a magazine."

Quoth the president, "Nevermore."


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