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