Currently bringing Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher to life with some very contemporary (but not cloyingly ostentatious) updating is Long Beach Opera, in their epic retelling of the short story, which is an almost by-the-book Gothic-horror tale.
Poe had a knack for characterizing and personalizing our profoundest fears– putting into words those feelings that overcome us in times of terror or trepidation and helping us to see that “the willies” is a universal emotion. The Fall of the House of Usher, being no exception, recounts first-hand the experiences of the narrator as he travels to a far-off “mansion of gloom” to comfort and assist an ill childhood friend with whom he, incidentally, hasn’t had contact in many years and about whom he knows virtually nothing.
How does a production company take such a personal account that describes, in unsettling details, one man’s internalization of his fears and then project it into a grand opera?
What Long Beach Opera has done is to: give its actors a tremendous, foreboding, dynamic set in which to play; make minor tweaks here and there to modernize the story’s time period; and dig deep into the subtext to unearth (or fabricate?) a homosexual bond between the two main characters that manifests in an intense and (literally) thunderous fornication of their newly forged relationship.
That ominous set consists of four cold, stone-looking pillars on wheels that are easily moved about the stage (at San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theatre) by eight stagehands, billed as supernumeraries. The members of this crew, by the way, don the typical all-black attire you’d expect; however, these dudes are really decked out in late-20th Century Goth getups and hairdos (two of the strokes of modernity), and they’re integrated into the production as characters themselves. They personify the House of Usher– a fitting directorial choice, since the Poe tale casts the house front and center as a character. Their manipulation of the pillars creates a living, breathing structure where the narrator (here, bestowed with the name William) and his sickly companion Roderick interact with each other and the various rooms of the home, along with Roderick’s sister Madeline (Suzan Hanson).
Madeline is also very ill (or is she?), and there are revelations made about her that force William, and the audience, to question the nature of her existence. This opera’s score was composed by Philip Glass, who describes his work as “music with repetitive structures.” In that vein, Hanson is tasked with providing very repetitious, ghostly, lyricless utterances throughout. These haunting sounds seem to be stripped directly from the film score of a 1960s B-movie horror flick, and there’s an affectation to them that almost induces a chuckle. Nevertheless, the seemingly derivative nature of these chords doesn’t in the least detract from their effectiveness in cultivating a spooky atmosphere. Indeed, it’s the kind of thing that you willfully give into so you can better enjoy the ride– like throwing your hands into the air during a roller-coaster’s plummet.
In the original story, the narrator, who is not identified by name, receives a letter from Roderick Usher, requesting his company as a source of “cheerfulness” to inspire “some alleviation of his malady.” One of the first signs that Long Beach Opera’s interpretation is being presented in modern day is that, in the opening scene, William (Lee Gregory) is using a computer tablet, probably an iPad, to read the invitational message from Roderick (Ryan MacPherson). William then uses a cell phone to book his flight to visit him. These elements don’t read as anachronisms, however; they work to illustrate the timeliness of Poe’s writing. Clothing and modes of transportation and communication are updated just enough, without a heavy-handed irony.
Shortly before he shows up as Roderick’s butler, bass-baritone Nick Shelton appears as a flight attendant on William’s trip. (In an instance of masculine beauty, when Shelton does get to open his mouth and show his singing chops, he unveils a mesmerizing voice with a rich, wonderful tone.) Another actor who wears two hats, almost literally, is Jonathan Mack, who, like Shelton, seamlessly transitions from one supporting character to another with ease. It’s fun to watch a capable actor evoke a contemporary archetype (in Mack’s case, the cab driver who transports William from the airport to the house of horrors) with only slight mannerisms and the subtlest of facial expressions.
This production’s most glaring deviation from Poe’s original work is the development of a homosexual interplay between William and Roderick. What at first appears to be a reinterpretation that takes liberties with a classic story turns out to be the manifestation of an interesting read on the story’s symbolism. As a matter of fact, a cursory search of the Internet yields a few essays and theses on homosexuality in Poe’s literature, as well as writings questioning and investigating the author’s own sexual orientation.
Although there is no explicit mention of the two main characters fornicating, it is a useful avenue to explore in that it provides drama and a physical incarnation of their connection. Many classics of literature are void of gay characters, ostensibly because of social norms during the time in which they were written, so to treat William and Roderick as homosexuals incidentally, when Poe’s writing lacked any reference to their romantic or prurient relationships with women, seems valid. Playing up the romance/sexuality between the two men could be argued as perfectly appropriate here, since this is, after all, a story in which reality is questioned.
Further support for the gay component can be found in the ethereal nature of sister Madeline. Does she even exist? After she supposedly dies, and the two men bury her to avoid doctors using her body to investigate her mysterious illness, William finally has the opportunity to see her face for the first time. He remarks that she looks identical to Roderick, who then reveals that she was his twin. By burying his feminine, diseased counterpart (who may actually still be alive), is Roderick suppressing his homosexuality?
Perhaps what we’re witnessing is only a hallucination. A fantasy? A madman’s nightmare? Possibly, it is the narrator himself who is the mad one, and we’re along for the strange trip.
Long Beach Opera will continue to bring about The Fall of the House of Usher at The Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St. in San Pedro, on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 8pm and Sunday, Feb. 3 at 2pm. Ticket information is available at longbeachopera.org or by calling (562) 432-5934.