10 September 2012

The Fall of the House of Usher, at The Hypocrites

I'm not an Edgar Allan Poe fan, so--although I am a fan of The Hypocrites--I was not expecting to be excited by this production. I quickly reread the source story before going to see the play: the narrator visits an old friend, Roderick Usher, the scion of a gloomy house (in both the literal and figurative sense); much the (physically and spiritually) worse since the narrator last saw him, and caring for a sister who is apparently dying. The narrator spends his time trying to cheer Roderick up, with poor results.  Gloom, gloom, gloom.  Roderick surprises the narrator with a request to help inter his sister, who has died.  Narrator notes that the sister's mysterious illness has left a bloom in her cheek.  Days pass, with the narrator continuing to try to cheer Roderick, now by reading Arthurian tales aloud. Strange sounds are heard. Terror.  The sister appears, escaped from her tomb (having been buried prematurely). She attacks Roderick, and somehow simultaneously kills Roderick, dies, and brings down the (literal) house of Usher, which crumbles. (The narrator, improbably, gets away unscathed.)

Sean Graney's adaptation entertainingly sends up this campy nonsense.  He takes Poe's overheated prose and puts it into the mouths of three major characters: the erstwhile narrator, here a formerly intimate female friend of Usher, Usher himself, and a maid, who serves as a narrative foil for the female friend when Usher is out of the room. Poe's prose as dialogue is typically ridiculous, and Graney amps up the absurdity by casting three female actors in the play's four roles (Usher's rarely seen sister is the fourth), and having the actors switch roles, sometimes at an astonishing rate.The "horror" atmosphere invoked by Poe's prose is continuously mocked--the word terror is winkingly repeated in stage-whispered asides. When a new character enters the set, everyone screams. And every time someone says the phrase "The House of Usher," howling is heard and the characters cower.  Toward the end of the play, the house starts to leak, another effect played for laughs.

There is plenty to make this show funny, and yet Graney's The Fall of the House of Usher is plenty creepy, too. The set is ingenious and gorgeous: an enclosed dark wood space with multiple doorways and scattered piles of old books that effectively conveys a decaying and deeply uncomfortable mansion.  There's something very creepy about the narrator's persistent attraction to Usher even after she sees his obviously pregnant sister float by (no question, really, about who the father is). There's also something creepy about her persistent cough, though its purported treatment, gin and lemons, is a source of repeated laughs. And everything about Usher is creepy, regardless of the actor who plays him.

Maybe all mysteries are creepy. By the end of the play, things we previously laughed at (the actors' quick changes, the dripping ceiling) are part and parcel of the horror Poe (and Graney) want us to feel--Madeline appears in a bloody nightgown (at this point all of the characters are wearing white nightgowns, and it's a credit to the production that you see nothing odd about Roderick Usher in a nightgown) and water is streaming down over the whole stage.

And nobody's laughing. Actors Tien Doman, Halena Kays, and Christine Stulik do a tremendous job bringing conviction to their multiple roles while balancing humor and horror to create astonished pleasure.

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