A Tell-Tale Poe

Jeffrey Combs stars in the one-man 'Nevermore,' which depicts a warts-and-all Edgar Allan Poe

January 21, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach

In the course of 25 years, actor Jeffrey Combs has gone from reviving corpses to serving as a Ferengi agent to embodying possibly the greatest American literary figure of the 19th century. His fans must get whiplash just trying to keep up with this guy.

"I'm just a squirrel trying to keep the engine going here," says Combs, who will be bringing his one-man play "Nevermore" to this weekend's 201st birthday celebration for Edgar Allan Poe. "Running on the wheel, that's all you're doing. I'm just trying to keep it interesting for myself."

By any account, he must be succeeding. "Nevermore" earned rave reviews during its Los Angeles run, which was extended from a planned four weeks to nearly six months at Hollywood's Steve Allen Theatre. ("In assessing this new play ... it's hard not to seem gushy," gushed the Los Angeles Times.)

As a semi-regular on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Enterprise," playing seven different roles over 11 years, Combs became a fan (and convention) favorite. And as the titular mad doctor in 1985's "Re-Animator," his reanimated heads went places that can't be described in a family newspaper, much to the delight of its rabid cult following.

"Yeah, I kind of live in two worlds," the 55-year-old actor says over the phone from his home north of L.A. "I have my horror fans, and then my sci-fi fans. People kind of go, 'Well, aren't they the same?' But they're not. One group doesn't necessarily know that I do a bunch of horror, and vice versa."

Playing Poe, however, gives Combs the chance to straddle both worlds. While the play doesn't have either the Grand Guignol appeal of "Re-Animator" or the zealous fan base of all things "Star Trek," it is geared for tastes perhaps slightly more mainstream. Heaven knows it should play well in Baltimore, which has spent the past year feting E.A. Poe at every available opportunity. Playing the original master of the macabre inside Westminster Hall, just yards away from Poe's grave, has Combs eager.

"I am so honored and so excited that I'm going to be so near the proximity of the man," says Combs, who first played Poe about five years ago, in an episode of the Showtime series "Masters of Horror."

"It's surreal. That's the word," he says. "I have really kind of kept my enthusiasm in check."

He even sees a good omen in the disappointing no-show of the mysterious Poe Toaster, who failed, for the first time in more than 60 years, to leave a half-consumed bottle of cognac and three red roses at Poe's original grave site on Monday night.

"Actually, my first thought when I read about it [Wednesday] morning was, 'Maybe he's waiting until the evening of our show,' " Combs says with a laugh. "We'll talk after my performance."

Combs cautions that the Poe of "Nevermore" might not be the Poe to which his fans have become accustomed. Yes, Poe has long been depicted as dark and brooding, befitting the author of such horrific tales as "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." But his Poe, Combs warns, is more personally flawed, more at war with himself, than other depictions.

"Most of the time, when people do one-man shows about Poe, they do not really examine his problems, in terms of his drinking and his inner demons and his heightened paranoia or perceived injustices," Combs says. "A lot of the time, they tend to be ... I don't know, I tend to call them 'museum pieces.' They're very reverent, which I hope our show is, too. But at the same time, I hope to illustrate a more well-rounded, all-encompassing Poe. Warts and all."

Presented as if Poe were giving a recital in front of a 19th-century audience, "Nevermore" consists almost entirely of his writings, taken not only from poems and stories, but from letters, journals and other sources. As the play progresses, Combs says, a besotted Poe gradually becomes less guarded in what he is saying.

"In our play, he pulls out a bottle," Combs says. "I don't know if anyone's ever sort of dared to explore that. The bottle takes the lid off some of Poe's control and civility. It just opens up some drawers in his personality that maybe are a little uncomfortable."

Stuart Gordon, who is directing Combs in "Nevermore" (as he also did in "Re-Animator" and "Masters of Horror"), says his longtime friend becomes Poe in the role. But given Combs' versatility, Gordon says - this is, after all, an actor picked to play seven different roles of nearly as many species in the "Star Trek" universe - being so expert at morphing into yet another character shouldn't surprise anyone.

"It doesn't look like Jeffrey, it doesn't sound like Jeffrey," Gordon says. "I don't know how else to put it. When he becomes Poe, he's someone else. After having worked with Jeffrey on several films, I realize he's a chameleon, he can be anyone. He's an amazingly versatile actor."

Poe, Combs insists, deserves no less.

"I think of him as America's van Gogh," he says, "a tortured, brilliant soul."

If you go
"Nevermore, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe," a one-man play starring Jeffrey Combs, will be performed twice this weekend at Westminster Hall, 519 W. Fayette St. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35; children younger than 9 will not be admitted. Call 410-396-7932 or go to poebicentennial.com.

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