There are two things you should know right away about Brat Productions' Haunted Poe: First, it's not scary so much as creepy, and second, I never even saw the roaches. To me, these are two very good things; to you, maybe not. The roaches, 4,000 of them, were cast courtesy of the Insectarium on Frankford Avenue, and have so far been the stars of Haunted Poe's preproduction press.
But really, the roaches make up just a fraction of the scene created during a 40-minute haunted house tour that leads through a winding series of tableaux featuring 13 of Edgar Allan Poe's works. It's a huge project - 10,000 dimly lighted square feet designed by Brad Helm, with a correspondingly huge cast. Populated by a cross section of Philadelphia theater artists from Barrymore winners to novices, Brat's warehouse labyrinth features smoky hallways and zombie-ridden graveyards that open into Hitchcockian-filmed vignettes (by local filmmaker Andrew Repasky McElhinney) and magical illusions. The cumulative effect is disorienting and discomfiting, which, considering the delicate state of Poe's own mental health and bouts with alcoholism, seems appropriate.
For fear of giving away too much, I'll only reveal that "The Raven" is well-represented by actor Nate Holt, whose outsized appearance (he's a very, very tall man) matches the story's outsized fame and creates its own kind of special effect. Also, even if you don't happen to be a theater critic, it's unsettling to be in such close proximity to playwright Bruce Graham when he's wielding a pickax.
Director Madi Distefano creates an uneven but compellingly dark vision of the torments that haunted Poe's soul, and while her fun house experience is fun, its aftereffects settle in deep, much like the tuberculosis that claimed Poe's wife and mother. Even if "The Masque of the Red Death" is ultimately misrepresented by a final, cheesy magic trick, its staging, and the ever-relevant implications of an epidemic at the door (H1N1? Salmonella?) are no less chilling.
Smarter and with more narrative than a traditional walk-through Halloween adventure, Haunted Poe nonetheless delivers on its promise to supply the requisite decaying corpses in Victorian garb and ghoul makeup (courtesy of Alisa Sickora Kleckner). There's also some significant dramaturgy involved, supplied by Greg Giovanni and bookending the show in the form of Punch and Judy puppetry at its entry and a supplementary 'zine available for purchase at show's end.
You certainly can't fault the company for widening its ambitions and for throwing all its resources into realizing them. There's a real benefit to bringing theater outside the theater and, further, outside the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe. Even if this show reveals its rougher plywood edges instead of being polished to a high Victorian sheen, its failures are probably due more to the scale of its ambition than to its own structural weakness. And given the choice, I'll take a big, exciting idea over a small, boring one any day, even if it does involve cockroaches.
Presented by Brat Productions through Nov. 1 at 38 Jackson St., Philadelphia. Tickets $15 to $25. Information: 800-838-3006 or www.hauntedpoe.com.