Although best known as a director, Sean Graney actually is becoming a most intriguing (and admirably prolific) adapter of classic literary works — from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Edgar Allan Poe. His talents in that arena aren't unlike his talents in stage direction, really — his skills include audacity, intensity, brevity and, most notably, a kind of insouciant creativity that feels like some maverick just squirted some air freshener on fetid texts. Purists always have to get the past the slight chemical residue, but the new aroma is quite intoxicating.
In the case of Graney's new version of "The Fall of The House of Usher," a smart-eyed take on the classic 1839 Poe yarn for The Hypocrites, the adaptation is far, far more successful than the actual premiere production.
In essence, Graney has taken a leaf out of the book of "The Mystery of Irma Vep," the well-loved Charles Ludlam satire of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and other gothic potboilers. In that 1984 camp classic, two actors played eight different characters, rapidly switching gender and costume. In Graney's 75-minute poke at Poe, three women (Christine Stulik, Halena Kays and Tien Doman) share all four of the roles, switching back and forward without regard, obviously, to gender. In the best moments, you find yourself briefly wondering which actress is in which role now.
One of Poe's big themes here, of course, is the physical manifestation of emotional anguish. Set in a classic lonely house, the macabre story deals with at least one character who is not very good at staying dead — although in the grotesque world inhabited by Roderick Usher, his guest and his residence, life and death are relative and unreliable narrative terms.
Along with his gifted set designer, the re-emergent Joey Wade, Graney is quite eye-poppingly successful at creating a sentient theatrical environment: Wades' set seems to ooze water (and various other fluids) from its very pores. At other moments, you swear you can see it pulse. In Poe's story, the Usher mansion actually seems break apart before your eyes; Wade and Graney come up with a pretty remarkable approximation of that, given that we're all in a Wicker Park basement. And Alison Siple's costumes manage to be both macabre and rather beautiful.
If only the actual storytelling functioned better in this rich theatrical world. The issues with this production are common problems that have tripped up countless other shows — the style-bound actors aren't able to root us in the kind of truth that's sufficiently believable for its subsequent warping to actually matter. And, as so often happens with campery of this type, the actors all start out at such a level of intensity and artifice, they leave themselves nowhere to go. None of the characters really seems to change; none seems vulnerable. The trajectory and pacing is mostly monotone — which is crippling for any show with at least one foot in the world of the thriller.
The other curious omission is the total absence of any kind of erotic charge, which is a big part of the Poe appeal, especially in terms of the interwoven relationships of family, intimacy and death. This show feels almost asexual in nature, which is a big problem with this material. These lapses are, frankly, irritating, because the good stuff is so darn potent.
I'd venture die-hard Poe fans will find much of interest (maybe annoyance) in this most distinctive and intellectually rich take. Still, Graney's big failing is that he doesn't manage to invest the viewer in the creepy narrative itself, on that all-important, moment-by-moment basis. It's a simple matter of paying more attention to the acting; this terrific adaptation is quite brilliantly conceived. But without truth and a trip we each can take, all the high style in the world can't fully deliver any house of horrors.
When: Through Sept. 23
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Tickets: $28 at 773-989-7352 and the-hypocrites.com