'Homo Poe Show' casts writer's works in a new light

Iron Crow Theatre Co. applies gay perspective to master of macabre

  • Nick Horan, bottom, and Alec Wienberg rehearse part of the Grieving and Sequins scene from "The Homo Poe Show."
Nick Horan, bottom, and Alec Wienberg rehearse part of the Grieving… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
March 16, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Edgar Allan Poe was a pretty open-minded guy. "I do not believe that any thought, properly so called," he once said, "is out of the reach of language."

So this Baltimore favorite son presumably would have been cool with the "Homo Poe Show," which started as a single thought — Is there a way to see Poe through a gay lens? — and resulted in enough provocative language to launch an evening-length collection of four short theater works.

It's the brainchild of Steven J. Satta, founding member and artistic director of Iron Crow Theatre Company, a Baltimore troupe that emphasizes works with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender perspectives.

"I blame this whole thing on Kwame," Satta says, referring to Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. "He invited Iron Crow to participate in a book fair event last year with some other groups, and he said to all the theater companies that if anyone wanted to do a short Poe piece, he'd welcome it."

That got Satta taking a fresh look at the master of the macabre.

"I reacquainted myself with 'Masque of the Red Death,' a story which I had always loved," Satta says. "I wanted to see if I could write a work about it. I wanted to see Poe through a queer lens. Then I approached everyone I knew and asked them if they wanted to do something like this, too."

Satta quickly found willing collaborators.

Daniel Talbott, a New York-based playwright whose edgy and affecting "Slipping" was given a potent Iron Crow production last season, jumped at the idea.

"I cracked up when I first heard 'The Homo Poe Show.' I love it," Talbott says. "I think Steve is being cheeky in a great way. It's awesome. I can imagine some people seeing the title and going, 'Oh, my God. What the hell is that?' And others will be going, 'This is fantastic.' "

Talbott created a play called "Thomas," inspired by Poe's short story "Eleonora."

Playwright and University of Iowa teacher Megan Gogerty, whose intriguing work "Bad Panda" was staged by Iron Crow two years ago, offered "Super-Hot Raven," based on — you guessed it. And Baltimore actor/playwright Rich Espey took his lead from "The Cask of Amontillado" and other pieces, resulting in a piece called "The Trick."

Other Baltimore-area artists joined the project along the way.

Mara Neimanis, who founded In-Flight Theatre, added aerial choreography. "I thought Poe lends itself to aerial work, giving the poetry a heightened sense of gesture," she says.

Choreographer Tony Byrd contributed a pas de deux for two men on a favorite Poe theme — obsessive relationships. "It's about codependency," Byrd says. "What does that mean for the person being supported? And for the person who's doing the supporting, is that what he wants to do?"

Great authors are forever being analyzed and reconsidered from different angles, including gay ones. It is not uncommon, for example, to see hints of gay relationships in contemporary Shakespeare productions.

The "queering" — Satta's term — of established works by straight writers or about straight characters is something Iron Crow has made part of its mission.

"Why queer Poe?" Satta says. "You could say he already was queer, in the wider sense of the word. His view of the world was so outside the mainstream. He's akin to John Waters in that way. It was a natural transition to do 'The Homo Poe Show.' "

Talbott shares that viewpoint.

"Poe was an outsider, struggling to find acceptance," the playwright says. "That's a struggle a lot of homosexual men and women can relate to. He's a great author for them, just as he is a great artist for straight audiences."

Although not "an avid Poe person," Talbott didn't hesitate to get involved with the Iron Crow venture.

"I think Steve's a great theater artist, always trying to push boundaries, but in ways that are open to everyone," Talbott says. "He had me read eight or nine of Poe's short stories. I ended up choosing 'Eleonora,' a really interesting, beautiful story about a very pure love that becomes obsessive."

In "Eleonora," the narrator falls in love with his young cousin (an autobiographical touch) and swears to be faithful even if she dies, which, this being Poe, she does. When the man eventually falls in love again, the ghost of Eleonora appears to release him from his vow.

Talbott's version follows a similar plot path, but involves two men.

"It was a good challenge for me to try to write in Poe's style," he says. "I've never written a monologue play. I wanted to keep other things that are in the story, like nature and the beach. In 'Eleonora,' the lovers find an idyllic place by water where they can be together. I wanted to put that into the play. I was thinking of Big Sur in California."

Where Poe had to be discreet, Talbott can be explicit.

"I put a lot of nudity in the play," he says. "This is about young horny men. And you know they are extremely sexual at that age. I wanted to show the object of affection."

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