Phoenix actor James Porter still recalls the first time he read a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
“I read The Tell-Tale Heart in junior high school,” he says. “I fell in love with it.”
Today, Porter is one of four actors performing in this year's PoeFest, a collection of events that highlight the 19th-century American writer's works. It’s the 11th season for the festival, conceived by Porter as a theatrical and literary alternative to the traditional haunted house scene.
Most people have read Poe’s macabre and mysterious tales like The Tell-Tale Heart, which often are included in English curricula. Porter says it’s easy to forget their relevance to contemporary times, but this year’s lineup may prove that Poe’s work is particularly timely given the current political climate.
It includes The Cask of Amontillado, a story that imagines a man being lured into underground catacombs and walled up inside them – while he’s still alive.
“It’s a story of vengeance and betrayal,” Porter says. “It’s very relevant to current times.”
Without alluding to a particular politician, Porter notes that some will see parallels between the story’s main character and current events. “Amontillado is a man who is absolutely obsessed with addressing the crimes he believes have been committed against him,” he says. “He’s extremely narcissistic and thin-skinned, and commits murder over feeling slighted.”
PoeFest 2019 will also include performances of "The Raven," The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, Spirits of the Dead, The Oval Portrait, and The Tell-Tale Heart, as well as a theatrical séance.
“We perform the works as Poe wrote them, except for minor word changes here or there,” he says. “We try to recreate the fictional world of Edgar Allan Poe.”
Poe wrote about an asylum, so Porter decided that it would make the perfect setting for their performances. Audiences can see actors performing Poe’s work in simple costumes as if they’re patients inside a 19th-century insane institution.
Porter is especially excited about performing the story The Tell-Tale Heart this year because it’s one of the works he finds most relatable.
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“It’s about a man whose own inner demons end up being his own undoing,” Porter says. “Sometimes, I’m my own worst enemy.”
But he sees political connections with The Tell-Tale Heart as well.
“It’s about a man who’s obsessed and entirely in denial; the more he talks, the more insane he gets,” Porter explains. “By the end of the story, it’s a runaway train.”
PoeFest is scheduled for October 4 to 31 at various locations. Ticket prices vary; the festival pass is $59.95. Proceeds benefit the Arizona Curriculum Theater's education programs. Visit poefest.org.