True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
Those are words that you might recognize, perhaps even know verbatim if you’re a reader: The chilling opening sentence of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is justly revered as one of the most riveting intros in all of American literature. It clues us in from the get-go that the narrator is intelligent, lucid, hypervigilant and, in all likelihood, dangerously out of touch with reality. So, how does one turn one of the most iconic – and shortest, at only five pages – of classic horror stories into a stage play that lasts close to an hour, as a Halloween-season treat for your community?
That was the challenge facing Andy Gaukel, who with his wife Kirsty Gaukel took up the reins of the Denizen Theatre in New Paltz this past spring. The couple scored a palpable hit over the summer with a tour-de-force performance by Suzen Baraka in George Brant’s one-woman drama Grounded, directed by Stephanie Courtney. The follow-up production had to deliver the goods on a similarly lean budget, and the Gaukels were keen on offering a show during the month of October that would resonate with the town’s long-running love affair with Halloween.
In fact, it was a series of visits to New Paltz to take advantage of its seasonal delights that helped lure them to relocate to the area in 2020. “We love fall, and the Hudson Valley is the perfect fall place,” Andy says. “Last year we went to Boos & Brews on Huguenot Street and did a little ghost walk.” It seemed to them that putting on a venerable horror-themed theatre piece in October would be a terrific way to connect with their new community. As a Denizen product, it had to be something that didn’t require audience members to check their brains at the door, but they wanted it to be accessible to everyone.
They didn’t want to do the usual reboot of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or “Rip Van Winkle” or Rocky Horror, though. “I had in mind to do a thriller, and Poe kept coming to me. It felt Northeasty to me,” Andy explains. “It felt right. So, I asked a lot of people in New Paltz about the idea, and I could see their faces light up.”
With a stage adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” in mind, Andy reconnected with actor Sean Meehan, an old acquaintance from Trinity Rep at Brown University, with whom he had subsequently collaborated on a puppetry piece about addiction that was funded by a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation. Meehan’s screen credits include parts in the 2014 TV movie The Normal Heart, the 2017 series The Deuce and, this year, an ongoing role as Ed in the Showtime series Three Women. They put their heads together to adapt Poe’s short story as a drama, with a single actor bringing the entire story to life.
Aside from the challenge of making an evening’s entertainment out of a short first-person narrative with a terrifying twist, Andy and his “co-deviser,” as he calls Meehan, had to present Poe’s nameless 19th-century psycho killer in a context that felt convincing in an age when we’re trying to destigmatize mental illness. There had to be more to this guy than mere obsession, body horror and auditory hallucinations. “We really worked hard to develop this character. We had to figure out, what makes this person tick?” says Andy. “From an acting class standpoint, there has to be a place in somebody’s life where we can find humanity – the flesh and the bone and the brain in there. This person still is a human, and does this horrible thing that ruins his life in a moment.”
Together, they decided to bring the action into a more recent era, and evoke more contemporary experiences with mental illnesses, bullying, social media, random violence. The fact that the narrator is a narcissist, absurdly proud of how efficiently he carried out his crime and hid all traces, may also resonate with current events for some in the audience. “We realized we needed to play the character as if he believes what he’s doing is the right thing,” Andy continues. “He’s telling you how amazing he is.”
But the collaborators didn’t want to dwell too heavily on the story’s Grand Guignol details. “We asked ourselves how we can present less about the gruesome aspects of what the story tells. The language guided us to how to bring viewers to see the story, with less gore, and more psychological.” If you’re wary of the idea of tinkering too much with Poe’s “weirdly beautiful” prose, then, this is the adaptation for you.
Knowing that the producer/director has a deep background in puppet theatre, and that he has brought in Brad Shur of Paper Heart Puppets in Poughkeepsie to assist with the scenic design, means that one is tempted to ask for spoilers about props and the like. Andy’s not giving anything away in that department, other than to say that the first 10 or 15 minutes of the play require the audience to pass through a “pathway to get to your seats” before the stage, covered with maroon velvet curtains, comes into full view. “We’ve created our own little world with this,” he says.
Sounds skin-crawly already, in the best Poe tradition. The Tell-Tale Heart at the Denizen Theatre, starring Sean Meehan and directed by Andy Gaukel, will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays all through the month of October. Ticket prices are $28 general admission, $25 for seniors and $5 for students. There will be two preview nights on September 29 and 30, with general and senior tickets going for $20. To order, visit www.denizentheatre.com/tell-tale-heart. The Denizen Theatre is located on the upper level of Water Street Market, at 10 Main Street in New Paltz. For more info call (845) 437-8393 or e-mail email@example.com.