As a kid, my three favorite writers were J.D. Salinger, Kafka and, maybe especially, Edgar Allan Poe. I stole five Poe books from our local library by throwing them out the fourth floor window into the bushes and then collecting them later that night, and I drank them in as deeply as I could.  I should also come clean and say that, among my peers, PlaylabNYC has consistently produced the kind of theater that I adore and simply don’t have the talent or fortitude to attempt myself.  It might go without saying, but this show was easily  the most anticipated production of the festival for me.

Even with the highest possible expectations, I was thrilled with the production. I had missed the first performance with a case of the ague or something, and was still so light-headed and stupid by the second show that I got off on the wrong stop and staggered my way down Irvington, convinced I was gonna be late, but the second I got to the door and saw Jennifer Wilcox (who’s title might be any number of things, but she does for Playlab roughly what I do for Gideon… except probably a lot better) I knew I was in good hands. We had to step over Edison, Jennifer and Kevin’s little boy (who played with Barnaby for a year in our neighborhood before any of us knew we were in the theater…) to get to our seats, and from the minute I crashlanded in the theater, everything got magical.

Kevin P. Hale comes wandering out, looking supremely uncomfortable in his pajamas, and begins to tell us… everything. It isn’t just Poe’s story, or his stories, it’s often stories about stuff that is happening around Poe, about perspectives that he had, and it even slides into some real literary criticism. And as he’s telling these stories, tiny little sets appear and even smaller puppets – so small that we have to watch the bulk of the show on a projected screen as it’s being captured on camera.

The loving detail and craftsmanship is enough for this show to be a must-see. Nothing is short changed, but some of the really amazing bits stand out. Kevin does an Ebert and Roeper take-off, with two tiny puppets sitting in chairs watching a matchbox screen, and on the screen Kevin has built scene after scene that scroll across. It goes without saying that the tiny, tiny movie they are watching is Poe, done by John Cusack and Ellen Page, and yes, that’s absolutely hilarious – but I had a hard time laughing for the awe.

I was at the back of the house, and it was as if the audience were all doctors in one of those rooms above an operating table. We were all trying to drink in every little detail, every little shift. But Kevin does more than just create a new tiny set and characters for each piece, he stays utterly loyal to the spirit of Poe, perhaps more than he even realizes.  Poe’s life was rife for tabloid fodder, he’s always seen as a drug addict or insane or whatever (almost none of this, according to what I know, can be substantiated, except that he was a drinker and stubborn as hell), but he was both difficult to embrace and easy to be inspired by.

This is exactly how Kevin himself comes across in the performance, relentlessly punning and sliding out at the end of stories instead of giving us big applause lines. He seemed to be 90% performing the show and 10% suffering through it, the way we imagine Poe himself might have tolerated such an occasion. And the way Poe’s life details slipped into the stories and the interstitial moments, it feels like having a moment with… well, not with Poe, but with another perfectionist, another awkward and brilliant man who is willing to sweat every tiny detail to make a moment sing.

I absolutely loved being in the audience for this show. Poe’s endless punning is embraced by Kevin, and there was a series of affectionate groans from the audience… that’s I saw a fire light in Kevin’s eyes, as if our groaning was what he was looking for. It’s not Poe if there isn’t a chance that the whole thing will turn on you, that it will get weird and dark and disjointed before our eyes. The source material is really meaningful to me, and the production is a celebration of commitment and craftsmanship, but more than that, the material matches the artist in a way that happens so rarely outside independent theater, when the people who are creating the stories are the one standing on stage telling them to us. It’s a perfect expression of why The Fringe Festival still, after all these years, allows for the opportunity of greatness.