‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

Tien Doman (foreground), Halena Kays and Christine Stulik (background); photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis

Talk about dreary and oppressive — Edgar Allan Poe really laid it on thick with “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Just read the with its abundance of dismal adjectives and adverbs:

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As hauntingly weird as the story is, it’s hard not to chuckle a little bit at just how over-the-top it goes with its depiction of … Well, what does it depict, exactly? It’s not exactly a straightforward horror or ghost story. More like a suffocation under layers of psychological maladies, written long before modern terms were coined for mental disorders.

The Hypocrites lean heavily toward a campy and humorous reading of Poe’s story in their new Chicago stage version, adapted and directed by Sean Graney. The three actresses intone Poe’s words in the quivering style of a creaky old-fashioned melodrama — intentionally overwrought acting that is intended to prompt laughs. And the audience did indeed laugh on opening night, even though I found it only intermittently amusing.

More interesting was the way Hypocrites’ three female cast members — Tien Doman, Halena Kays and Christine Stulik — kept switching costumes and changing roles during the play, a ruse similar to the one Charles Ludlum used in The Mystery of Irma Vep. The women don fake facial hair whenever they play the part of the melancholy host of the creepy house, Roderick Usher, and doff it when they switch to one of the other roles. Meanwhile, the play changes Poe’s unnamed narrator, a boyfriend friend visiting Usher’s home, into a woman — adding sexual tension to the situation.

The costume-swapping increases in rapidity as the play moves toward its climax, with a clever visual gag finally letting the audience in on the joke of what’s happening. In the end, all of these antics do serve a purpose beyond amusing us. They heighten the original story’s sense of disturbing thoughts permeating the walls and flowing contagiously from one person to the next. They make the characters feel like mental extensions of one another. When this adaptation of Poe’s Usher gets peculiar and creepy at its conclusion, it finally clicks.

The Fall of the House of Usher continues through Sept. 23 at the Chopin Theater. See the-hypocrites.com for details.

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