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."
Death, which haunts so much of Poe's work, is a theme in the Iron Crow production, too. That's especially true of Satta's play, which he originally titled "Infection."
"The idea grew out of seeing the high rates of AIDS in Baltimore," Satta says. "The play started out as agitprop, but then I realized that's not Poe. Also, someone told me that if you put on a play about AIDS here, people will stay away in droves."
Satta changed the title to "Grieving and Sequins." Although an infectious disease still figures in the plot, there is much more to the story, which has many a Poe-like resonance. A young man, whose lover has died, closes himself off from the world but cannot keep a ghost from getting inside.
An unwelcome visitor figures in Espey's play, too. The writer drew inspiration from several Poe pieces.
"I was not a huge fan of his," Espey says. "He can be tiresome as a writer in some ways. But I had fun reading a lot of the works. There were themes I really liked — mourning of a youthful love; being buried alive or burying someone else alive; being obsessed with something. I decided I didn't want my play to be from just one of his stories, but be Poe-esque."
In addition to "The Cask of Amontillado," Espey tapped into the poems "Annabel Lee" and "Eldorado." The central character loses the love of his life, Timothy, and becomes fixated on the idea that any future object of desire must have the same eyes as Timothy.
"At the same time, Time, who is a character, is ticking away," Espey says. The narrator "tries to trick Time into standing still. Of course, it won't work. I am not trying to make a huge statement about it, but being obsessed with youth or remaining young rings a little bit true with gay men."
Espey describes his play as "very funny. There can be humor in craziness. If you're going to be true to Poe, you have to keep the hero crazy," the playwright says. "He can't really learn and grow. He has to stay true to the obsession."
Gogerty did not think of herself as a natural participant in the Poe project.
"I had no relationship with Poe at all," she says. "I read him in high school when I was obliged to, and promptly forgot all about him. I'd rather curl up and watch 'America's Next Top Model' because I'm the worst person in the world. When Steve asked me to go look at the Poe canon and see what speaks to me, I was, like: 'Couldn't you just give me an assignment?' "
Satta obliged. He told Gogerty he envisioned an adaptation of "The Raven" that would be about lesbians, one of them wearing a Ravens football jersey.
"I told him, 'Now you're speaking my language,'" Gogerty says. "Steve also said he wanted it to have a happy ending. He was tired of sad lesbian plays. So I reread the poem and realized my best take on it was to think of the raven as a person. The raven and the poet are, in fact, lovers. Love affairs can be scary. They can be crazy. They can make you do insane things."
Gogerty's work contains "a sprinkling of Poe in-jokes," including references to Poe's marriage to his 13-year-old cousin.
As for the happy ending request, "I skirted around that," Gogerty says. "But I tried to end it sexily. That's sort of a happy ending, right?"
If you go
"The Homo Poe Show" opens Friday and runs through April 5 at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $15 to $20. Call 443-637-2769 or go to ironcrowtheatre.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun