When Andy Gaukel, the artistic director at New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre, first imagined staging a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, he pictured a stage dominated not by an actor, but shadow puppets. Gaukel is a lauded puppeteer, and has been awarded two grants from the Jim Henson Foundation to support his original work. But, while developing the adaptation, he had a change of heart.
In The Tell Tale Heart, now open at the Denizen, we are offered not shadows on a wall but the fetid, physical brilliance of Sean Meehan, who Gaukel chose to embody the protagonist, an unnamed murderer. As actor and director, the duo devised Poe’s tale into a 60-minute one-hander.
Meehan’s resume is comprised largely of on-screen roles like Morton in Ryan Murphy’s A Normal Heart and Ed in Three Women—a forthcoming Showtime original—but he’s no stranger to the stage. In fact, he and Gaukel both earned their MFA with the Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island.
Meehan has a theater company of his own, Workshop 30/31, with which the Denizen collaborated to bring this project to fruition. Gaukel and Meehan handle Poe’s words masterfully; the text is given due respect without upstaging its performer. “We’re very adherent to writers’ words, Andy and I, as gospel,” Meehan explains. His performance could double as a master class in script analysis, and he enriches Poe’s paranoiac prose with a converse quality—Meehan is uproariously funny.
While the final iteration of this production excludes shadow puppetry, the bygone idea functions as an underpainting—both physically and conceptually—for The Tell-Tale Heart. An element of two-dimensionality remains at the beginning of the show, wherein Meehan addresses the audience with a curtain drawn before the set. We are left in limbo with only Poe’s narrator—flustered and fidgeting in the aftermath of his deed; dancing afront, behind, and even within the curtain—to keep us company. “To distill the play in a couple of words,” Meehan primes, “it’s paranoia-induced violence. We are obviously no stranger, in this country and in the world, to [that].” From this most unreliable narrator, we are provided only a shadow of the truth; in the vague, dark shapes cast by Poe’s writing, we are left to assume the details of the play’s constituent horrors—until we’re not.
The moral ambitions of the adaptation are clarified once the narrator allows us into his quarters. A stage light blinds us as Meehan first opens the curtain; maniacal eyes are etched into the wall like hieroglyphs that return our stare. Most prominent of all, the stage is littered with shredded newsprint, beneath which the victim—an old man with a “vulture eye”—rots. At one point, in desperation, Meehan reconstructs the disembodied man out of newsprint upon an easy chair—the only furniture onstage—quite literally giving form to his victim via media.
These additions, which transform Poe’s first-person short story into a staged play, animate the production with a modern quandary: Is it a privilege to look away? No such privilege is afforded to this audience. The narrator—murderer—demands an explanation with his refrain: “How, then, am I mad?” We’re urged to consider what happens when, rather than averting our gaze, we let our eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Snag your tickets to The Tell-Tale Heart at The Denizen Theatre in New Paltz, open through October 30. General admission runs $28, with $5 tickets available for students.