Sean Graney falls hard for Poe’s ‘House of Usher’
BY MARY HOULIHAN August 8, 2012 5:08PM
Tien Doman (from left), Halena Kays and Christine Stulik star in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
‘THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER’
♦ Aug. 15-Sept. 23
♦ The Hypocrites at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
♦ Tickets, $28
♦ (773) 989-7352;
Updated: September 11, 2012 6:08AM
When it comes to creating for the stage, Sean Graney has become a master at taking already established plays — most recently “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Romeo and Juliet,” the Greek classics — and reworking them with his own unique vision into critically acclaimed productions.
But back in 2009, Graney had a less successful experience with his adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
I didn’t enjoy that one very much,” Graney says with a knowing laugh. “It was the first piece of non-dramatic literature that I adapted for the stage and there was just a huge learning curve. I learned a lot from that experience but I just didn’t have enough tools at my disposal to make it work.”
Now Graney is taking another stab at the literature end of things with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which opens the season for The Hypocrites. First published in 1839, it is among the author’s most famous works and set the standard for American Gothic horror.
For someone who’s so grounded in the world of words, Graney admits that growing up “we never read anything and we never talked about books or literature in my house.” But he does remember his sister reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” for school and suggesting he read it too. He did, and it stuck.
“It’s just so well written and so concise,” Graney notes. “It’s unlike any other story in how affective it is in achieving a sense of chilling horror. It was just plain spooky.”
As the dark and unsettling story unfolds, the narrator has been asked to visit his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, at his bleak and desolate mansion. The visit will be therapy for a mental disorder afflicting the sullen and nervous Usher whose only companion is his beloved sister, Madeline. Long in declining health, she now appears to be dying. There is a constant sense of dread hovering over every word of this story.
Of course, in a Graney adaptation there’s always a twist. Here he uses three female actors — Halena Kays, Tien Doman and Christine Stulik — who alternate in the roles throughout the play’s three scenes. In addition, he also makes the visiting narrator (presumed to be a man) a woman.
“I like this rotation because I think the story is about the fracturing of a personality,” Graney says. “So you have this idea of a psychological breakdown of a person and what happens when they can’t hold onto their identity anymore.”
Kays has played a number of characters in a single production but not a number of characters that other people are also playing. Graney’s creations always come with unique challenges, she says.
“When he first came to me with the idea, I was surprised but then it sparked my curiosity,” says Kays, who a year ago, took over the reins as Hypocrites artistic director from Graney. “Sean uses much of the actual story in the adaptation so actually I think the biggest surprise is having to create a uniformity between those different characters on top of what has turned out to be the most difficult language in a play that I’ve ever worked on.”
Graney also is keen on exploring how to effectively portray horror on stage.
“I’ve never seen a really scary play, and I don’t know if it’s possible to do,” Graney explains. “How do you do in live theater what they do so well in literature and movies? How do you really scare an audience? I’m fascinated with figuring that one out.”
GREEK UPDATE: Graney also is deep into what will probably be the biggest adaptation of his life: Honing the 32 classic Greek tragedies into one, epic,1,000-page script. A recent reading took 12 hours.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with it,” Graney admits. “It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ll get it done someday.”
For the time being, he’ll teach classes related to the Greek adaptation at both the University of Chicago and Lake Forest College this fall: “It’s an opportunity to work with students in developing the script and also help them look at the Greek plays via a different perspective.”
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.