His tell-tale heart:
Joel Kabik's brush
with the macabre

A story by Tom Knapp,
October 1997

Joel Kabik lay in the hospital with a tube in his weak heart. A virus had cut his heart to 50 percent of capacity. Complications from pneumonia dropped lung capacity to 40 percent of what it should be.

Kabik was so sick he reluctantly took a hiatus from the job he loved, hamming it up as a young William Shakespeare at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, to seek medical aid.

"I was doing my shows," he later recalled, "but I was literally dying out there."

As doctors inserted the catheterization tube, Kabik felt his heart flutter. It was a normal reaction, but he panicked. To relax, he laid his head back and started reciting lines. But it wasn't Shakespeare which came to mind.

"So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating, 'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -- Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -- This it is, and nothing more."

Kabik, whose first job at Mount Hope was as a nut vendor, made his mark there after getting his first break as Edgar Allan Poe. He filled the role first at Fright Night, an outdoor Halloween festival on the faire grounds, and later at Edgar Allan Poe Evermore, an annual production in the old Grubb mansion on the Mount Hope grounds.

Since then, he's moved on to lighter roles -- the winsome Charlie Chaplin at the Roaring '20s show, then a Chaplinesque interpretation of Shakespeare at the faire.

When Poe Evermore reopened (Halloween 1997), Kabik was back as the master of macabre. And he had a new perspective on life and death.

Kabik said reciting "The Raven" in the hospital helped calm his fears. "I wasn't thinking about the show, it's just what came to my mind at the time," he said.

The immortal lines from Poe's most famous poem not only helped him through the panic, it helped him through the tedium of recovery. After five days in intensive care, Kabik found he couldn't lie still. "I was entertaining people, walking down the hall with my IV doing Shakespeare, doing Poe," he said. "I was keeping myself bright. ... I had a wonderful time during the end of my stay."

Kabik convalesced for four weeks before returning to light duty at the faire. Now he's raring to go as Poe, despite some necessary lifestyle changes: no alcohol, no tobacco, and the salt in his diet has been replaced largely -- he chuckled -- by apples.

It was the closest Kabik has ever come to death, and it has changed his outlook on Poe.

"It had a great effect," he said. "The fear of the unknown is really present. And that made the stories of Poe much more real for me."

His passion for the writer is evident from his first appearance on the mansion's lofty widow's walk, where he recites "The Conqueror Worm" for patrons below. Then it's inside for a literary fete hosted by Roderick Usher, the somber antihero in Poe's novella, "The Fall of the House of Usher."

It's a cheerful occasion, despite the recent death of Usher's sister, the failing health of Poe's wife and the overall grimness of the tales. Poe himself has been shot in the arm by a masked gunman, lending a whodunnit air to the show.

But Kabik's Poe is a congenial Poe, not the tormented addict of later years. He's an amiable storyteller. And Kabik certainly loves to tell a good tale, as he demonstrates with one of Poe's lesser-known works, "Hop Frog." Shuffling through a diverse medley of voices, faces and postures, Kabik enacts the funny, tragic story of fiery revenge.

"There is another side to Poe," Kabik insisted. "He joked. He laughed. He could be hysterical."

Besides "Hop Frog," Poe Evermore this year showcases "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Black Cat" and several poems including, of course, "The Raven." A strong ensemble of Mount Hope veterans rounds out the cast.

Kabik is convinced his experience has made him a better Poe. "I so desperately want to be doing what I'm doing now," he said following a recent dress rehearsal. "It's all so much more precious to me."

An actor since age 3, Kabik said, "I never realized how much I loved it until I got to do it again."

[ by Tom Knapp ]