The Fall of the House of Usher
At the Hypocrites Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – An audience can always be assured of a wild ride from a Sean Graney production. The man consistently thinks outside the box, especially when it comes to adapting literature for the stage. Consider his adaptation and direction of Edgar Allen Poe’s horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher” for the Hypocrites company.
Published in 1839, Poe’s tale takes place in an ancient dark and decaying mansion standing in a bleak and unidentified wilderness. A fearsome storm rages outside, but not as fearsome as the emotions roiling the main character, Roderick Usher, the last in his family line. Roderick lives isolated with his twin sister Madeleine in an emotionally overheated relationship with a strong whiff of incest about it.
Photos by Matthew Gregory Hollis
Usher has summoned a childhood friend to visit him the mansion. The nameless friend, who narrates the story, arrives in the dead of night, to be greeted by a servant girl with vaudeville Irish accent. Eventually Roderick appears, a man sick in both body and mind. Much feverish talk follows, laced with references to death and decay and terror and suffering. Poe’s ripe language paints vivid verbal pictures of the morbid and sinister atmosphere that saturates the mansion and Roderick’s troubled soul. We learn that Roderick’s sister has recently died and is buried in the family vault. But the woman may also be in a cataleptic state, buried alive. At the climax of the story, the blood-soaked sister appears and she and her brother fall dead. The visitor flees the mansion, turning around to see the House of Usher split apart and sink into a tarn.
This is pretty creepy stuff on the printed page and has the potential to be a white-knuckle thriller on the stage, though portraying the destruction of the mansion could be a little dicey. As usual, Graney goes his own way in reshaping the Poe story. The adaptation uses three actresses to play the story’s four characters. He changes the visitor into a gin-swilling female and injects a bit of rough erotic byplay between her and Roderick.
impossible to take the story seriously in Graney’s broad interpretation. Poe
wrote a horror tale but Graney converts it into a campy high Victorian
melodrama with much eye rolling stylized acting that produce lots of giggles from
the audience. Indeed, Graney’s concept plays more like a send-up of Poe than a
re-imagining of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an intense story drenched
in fear and madness. The spectator does get a few jolts when characters suddenly
appear from a doorway, but overall we have a comedy on the order of “The
Mystery of Irma Vep,” that popular humorous melodrama that pops up in local
Photos by Matthew Gregory Hollis
The Poe language that is so riveting on the printed page sounds comically overwrought on the stage. Graney shifts roles among his three performers, to both the delight and confusion of the spectator. The Irish maid is played by two of the three actresses and in one bizarre scene two performers assume the identity of the visitor, dashing in and out of doors at opposite ends of the stage so that we see the character in duplicate, like in a Marx Brothers farce. In these moments, even Roderick looked perplexed on stage.
The designers reinforce the grotesque superstructure of the story. In Joey Wade’s set the ceiling consists of slats of rotting wood and toward the end of the play water drips from the rafters symbolizing the physical corruption of the mansion. The actresses wear an impressive period wardrobe of gowns and breeches and waistcoats and top hats designed by Alison Siple. Jared Moore (lighting) and Rick Sims (sound) do their bit to underscore the macabre aura of the show, with strobe lights enhancing the shock element and a fog machine plus howling dogs off stage contributing to the air of menace. But none of these special effects mask the fact that this is a comedy built out of mock scarifying components.
The cast of Tien Doman, Halena Kays, and Christine Stulik give Graney exactly what he wants, exaggerated acting that never quite goes over the top into the ludicrous. The performers take their roles seriously, even if the audience can’t. Doman, Kays, and Stulik execute fast, precision costume changing off stage as they switch characters, adding another ingredient to the evening’s hi jinx.
The playbill says the production runs approximately 70 minutes. My performance clocked in at a crisp 55 minutes, which was long enough. The show doesn’t build to a shivering climax, a curious failing for a man of Graney’s theatrical instincts. The narrative should ascend in unease to the ghastly appearance of the blood-soaked sister emerged from the grave. But there isn’t any dramatic arc to the adaptation and consequently no thrill of horror at the end. Still, the show will satisfy those happy to spend an hour indulging Sean Graney’s fertile imagination. Those who expect the live realization of a classic tale of of claustrophobic dread should turn to the Poe original, free of nudge-nudge wink-wink comedy and cross dressing performers.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” runs through September 23 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division Street. Performances are Friday, Saturday, and Monday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $28. Call 773 989 7352 or visit www.the-hypocrites.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. August 2012
Contact Dan at email@example.com.
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!