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Jeffrey Combs isn't necessarily known for his live performances. He’s attained cult status for his needle-wielding role in the 1985 sci-fi/horror movie “Re-Animator.” Over the years, though, this actor has grown a little weary of being asked to repeat his character Dr. Herbert West’s most famous lines — including, “I gave him life!”
These days, including Friday night at the Somerville Theater, Combs prefers to channel the literary spirit of Edgar Allan Poe in his one-man show “Nevermore.”
I caught up with Combs as he walked through the Somerville Theater for the first time. The actor gushed standing under the historic venue’s domed ceiling, then shouted “test one, test two” into the air. “The acoustics sound good!” he proclaimed.
“I’ve done this show a number of places,” Combs explained. “It started in Los Angeles in a little black box for a four week run that exploded into six months of sold out performances.”
“Nevermore” moved on to other cities including New York, Las Vegas and Baltimore — where Poe died at age 40 in 1849. Now Combs is tickled to be taking the stage in Somerville, just a few miles over the river from Boston, Poe’s birthplace.
The actor brings the Victorian author to life with help from his custom-made period costume. He dons a shoulder-length wig and attaches a prosthetic “Poe” nose. It also helps that Combs is the same height as the dark wordsmith, and they share the same eye color. The role seems like a perfect fit for an artist who’s made a career out of the creepy. But Combs has a confession.
“I tell you honestly I hesitated to do this piece about Poe because I’m known for horror — and one of the purposes of this little stage exploration was to expand away from that, not go towards it,” he admitted.
It all started when Combs was looking for a historical or literary figure to portray on stage. During his research he was captivated by Poe’s tragic biography — he felt like he knew him.
“You know he was orphaned when he was three," Combs said, adding that Poe sold "The Raven" for just $11.
Combs shared his discoveries with his friend and frequent collaborator, director Stuart Gordon ("Re-Animator," "From Beyond," "Castle Freak").
A year later, Gordon delivered a script for “Black Cat” — a dramatized biography about Poe — to producers behind the Showtime series "Masters of Horror." They green lit the project and Gordon cast Combs to play Poe. Then Gordon told the actor he should do a one-man stage show.
“I resisted it vehemently,” Combs recalled.
But a few years later, Combs gave in.
“We want to pigeonhole Poe,” he explained. “We want to say he’s just a writer of ghoulish tales or he was a drunkard in the street. And it’s just not so. He was a poet and a full human being.”
Combs can relate to Poe’s predicament. He said a lot of horror fans come to see him in “Nevermore” expecting some sort of “Re-Animator” experience.
“Yeah, uh, it won’t be that. Flat out guarantee it," he said. "But I hope they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
The actor reads the poem “Alone” in his show and says it shows a side of Poe that a lot of people don’t see.
At the same time, Combs makes it clear that he's — perhaps eternally — grateful for the notoriety that’s come with playing a cult horror movie character. And he hopes the Halloween night audience in Somerville will get some chills and thrills at his performance because — of course — he’ll be reading some of Poe’s most famous scary stories.
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