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Chicago Opera Theater

The Fall of the House of Usher

By Philip Glass

By Lori Dana

Indeed, Philip Glass’ score is the big star of The Fall of the House of Usher. As taut and dangerous as a garrote, it sets an edgy tone from the opening bars, creating an emotional map of the protagonist’s hopeful interludes and encroaching terrors. Under the baton of COT General Director Andreas Mitisek, a 13-piece orchestra brings Glass’ music to vibrant life behind a small cast of very strong voices. This is the updated tale of the slightly timid and nerdy William (baritone Lee Gregory), who has received an email summoning him to the estate of his childhood friend Roderick Usher (tenor Ryan MacPherson). William and Roderick have become estranged over the course of many years, but Roderick is desperately ill and his request is so heartfelt and distressed that William feels compelled to respond.

Director Ken Cazan’s contemporary staging of Poe’s short story employs a half-dozen menacing young men (some in the foot-high, brightly colored Mohawks and studded leather of the ’80s English punk, some with the spiky Goth-kid look one might find backstage at a concert by Marilyn Manson or The Cure) as menacing presences in every scene.

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 They first appear behind William’s airplane seat, skulking harbingers of the death and destruction to come. Later, they act as stand-ins for lost generations of Ushers, whose spirits lurk in the doorways and corners of Set Designer Alan Muraoka’s stark, tomb-like mansion-house, pushing rolling panels of the modular set from scene to scene like zombie roadies. Roderick is by far the creepiest character in this Gothic pantheon, wan and gaunt and lunatic in the way that only the last of a dying generation, living alone in the crumbling wreckage of a life, can be.

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Unlike Poe’s original concept in which Roderick and his twin sister Madeline are psychologically attached even in death, Cazan has envisioned Madeline as the feminine aspect of Roderick’s personality. Too long suppressed, she is now driving him to the brink of insanity. The intricate choreography involved in staging this aspect of the story is fascinating to watch and very effective. Intense dramatic chemistry and physical teamwork between Ryan Macpherson and soprano Suzan Hanson bring this merged personality to spine tingling life. Madeline’s evil impishness and her grasping, desperate, constant attempts to get inside Roderick’s skin will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

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Meanwhile, in his efforts to save his old friend from despair, William rediscovers tender feelings for Roderick, and during a stormy night those feelings are realized…whether with Madeline or Roderick, or both, we can’t be sure. The rush of emotion is too much for Roderick’s fragile psyche, and the horrifying descent into madness and death that ensues brings the House of Usher to the ground, and the Harris Theater audience to their feet.

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In their spellbinding production of The Fall of the House of Usher, Chicago Opera Theater again pushes its medium to the creative edge and the results are compelling, thought provoking and creepy as hell. Mr. Poe would be pleased and you will be transfixed.

4 STARS

(“The Fall of the House of Usherruns through March 1 at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Street. 312-704-8414)

CLOSING WEEK – DON’T MISS! 

The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher production photos by Liz Lauren.

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