Queering Poe: Chicago Opera Theatre goes full-on gay in 'Usher'

February 27, 2013

Same-sex makeout sessions. Punks with mohawks. Guitars. Nazi references. These are not phrases one generally associates with a night at the opera, but the Chicago Opera Theatre all but flew over the cuckoo’s nest with their staging of Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher. With Edgar Allan Poe and Glass, one expects a prerequisite amount of strangeness, as Glass’ minimalist loopiness and Poe’s wall-to-wall macabre stylings are brands in themselves. However, director Ken Cazan's production is effusively bonkers in the best possible way. General director Andreas Mitisek kicked off the evening with a fictitious letter directed from the deceased Poe to the audience. Sounding a bit like Christoph Waltz, the Austrian-born Mitisek told us of Poe’s journeys in Hell, while also reminding the audience to donate. We were clearly in for a weird night.

As Chicago Opera Theatre’s newest director, Mitisek has promised that, under his tenure, the company’s vision will be bold and boundary-pushing. Although it’s far from Glass’ finest work, The Fall of the House of Usher is a perfect thesis statement for Mitisek: a production that unleashes all the ghosts and the insinuations buried within Poe’s texts and brings them to light. Like a heart beating in the floor boards, Poe deals with our hidden ghosts, the terrors we think we can keep to ourselves. And Alan Muraoaka’s sets give them nowhere to hide. The sparse set design and ghoulish lighting accentuate the actors’ shadows, ones that consume the backdrop. Although Poe’s story refuses Roderick or William’s motivations clear, Cazan and Mitisek give their demons life.

A major hook of the production was the Chicago Opera Theatre’s queering of Poe, as their interpretation literalizes the psychosexual subtext in the Usher melodramas. Whereas Poe hinted at themes of doomed, unspeakable love, the COT goes full-on gay—with the aforementioned soft-core scene, multiple massage interludes and an extended three-way incest fantasy straight out of David Lynch. If Mitisek wants to prove he’s unafraid to take chances, this is the way to do it, as the predominantly heterosexual audience was squirmy throughout. I noticed a lot of coughing, throat clearing and butt shifting in the seats around me. Clearly they didn’t get the memo. They came for Einstein on the Beach and Cazan gave them Poeback Mountain. The whole thing is impressively ballsy.
 
As Poe’s story ends in (19th century spoiler alert!) Roderick’s eventual death, the gaying of the joint could have felt like a cheap way to capitalize themes of LGBT suicide. However, adding social relevance to the play brings an unexpected emotional center to Poe. We share William’s sense of doom not just about the Usher house’s legacy but the loss of his beloved, who descends into an increasingly over-the-top madness. Ryan MacPherson does an outstanding job of highlighting Roderick’s gothic eccentricity without descending into too far into camp, and MacPherson makes for a fitting juxtaposition to Lee Gregory’s baritone innocence. They transform Roderick and William into natural stage partners and make their tragedy touchingly human.
 
However, the opera’s camp element is left to Suzan Hanson as Madeleine, and Hanson nails it. Instead of a corpse hidden away, Glass and Cazan imagine Roderick’s sister as an omnipresent apparition provoking the characters’ split psyches. Hanson’s Madeleine is present for what feels like every second of the play, wailing the libretto and stealing the scene without disrupting it. In a memorable sequence, she crawls between Roderick and William as they attempt to eat dinner, writhing on the glass table and doing her best Helena Bonham Carter impression. After her death is revealed, they will then dine on her remains—in a sly nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. For those who dismiss the opera as boring, The Fall of the House of Usher proves to be anything but. In its 80 minutes of unbroken descent into Hell, it’s tense, gripping and more fun than a tragedy has any right to be.
 

If the queer interpretation goes over like gangbusters, I was less a fan of the show's punk aesthetic, which felt too on the nose. Rather than reifying Poe’s dragons, costume designer Jacqueline Saint Anne transforms the house’s spirits into eight mohawked rebels, who are charged with moving around set pieces. Although making the spirits into physical bodies is a creative way of bringing the house to life, the goth costuming is irritatingly obvious. I don’t want to have what Andrew Lloyd Webber is having. If Cazan wants to instill a sense of dread in his rock opera, the Riefenstahl-esque columns of the House of Usher achieve what his goths cannot. They draw us into the House, as its walls slowly imprison Roderick within it. With Glass’ chilling score behind it, we can’t help but get pulled in with him.

Glass’ chamber opera will be playing through March 1 at the Harris Theatre on 205 E. Randolph Drive, and tickets range from $35 to $120. You can purchase tickets at chicagooperatheatre.org or by phone at 312-704-8414. Don’t miss your chance to see Poe as you’ve never seen him before—or are likely to ever again. If he is in Hell right now, he’s likely burning with a smile.

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ life in Chicago. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on Facebook