Playwright: adapted by Sean Graney from the story by Edgar Allan Poe. At: The Hypocrites at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets: 773-989-7352; www.the-hypocrites.com; $28. Runs through: Sept. 23
It started in 1984 with Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep for the legendary Theatre of the Ridiculous. This seminal comedy parodied the mystery/horror/thriller plays popular in the 19th and early-to-mid-20th century, highlighting the genre's artificialities through the conceit of only two actors playing all the characters. Efforts to capitalize on the same device continue to proliferate, but Sean Graney's contribution outstrips them at capturing the very essence of the Ludlam aesthetic.
Our framework is Edgar Allan Poe's shivery neo-Gothic tale of two patrician siblings doomed by their inbred lineageRoderick Usher, afflicted by morbid depression, and his likewise neurasthenic twin sister, Madeline, whose delicate health is evidenced in cataleptic seizures mimicking death. Our narrator is the former's boyhood companion, whom Graney's adaptation transforms into a gal pal in order to introduce a subtext of repressed sexuality, and whom he furnishes with a consumptive condition requiring large doses of medicinalnot brandy, or laudanum, but low-bred, vulgar GIN.
What chiefly distinguishes this 65-minute romp from its prototypes, however, is not just that its personae, male and female, are played by women, but that their duties exceed simple quick-changes within a specified list of roles to include switching identities with one another. This means that any character may be played, at any point in the story, by any of three different actors, the costumes and wigs serving as our only indication of the personnel occupying the scene under scrutiny. To be sure, our trio of thespians varies considerably in physique and vocal range, but so swiftly does the dramatic action progress that we are allowed no opportunity for expository reflection.
A chronic hazard with this roadrunner pace is the propensity of its participants to lose control of their material, but Tien Doman, Halena Kays and Christine Stulik (assisted by a pair of backstage dressers, brought out for the curtain call) retain their grip on Graney's intricate alley-stage choreography and Poe's florid language with never a misstep. Joey Wade's surprise-filled scenic design and Rick Sims' stereophonic soundscape (listen for thunder literally rolling across the sky) also keep the stage picture fraught with anticipation, so that the literary sophistication and physical agility on display more than redeem the few standard-issue mock-melodrama gags as yet unexcised.