The Fall of the House of Usher
Adapted by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili from a short story by Edgar Allan Poe
Produced by Synetic Theater
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
For the first twenty minutes, The Fall of the House of Usher is the best thing I have ever seen Synetic do. Edgar Allen Poe’s pyrotechnically lush short story (which I recommend you read here before going to the show if you aren’t familiar with it) is tailor-made for Synetic’s kinetic storytelling, in ways that its most recent adaptations – Macbeth and Animal Farm – are not. And Synetic takes a huge bite out of this particular juicy peach. Irini Tsikurishvili’s choreography is practically a sacrament; Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original music is art; and when the House on the stage falls – which it does both literally and figuratively – the house in the audience stands up and cheers.
And yet…and yet. One of the great advantages Synetic’s storytelling style has over, say, modern dance is that in Synetic shows the actors can speak, and thus Synetic has the full storytelling toolbox. Why, then, is everything so vague and inferential? The five fabulous dancers/actors chalked up to look like dead folks – who are they? The program describes them as the House itself, but they could have been animated statues, or ghosts, or cadavers, or all three. Phillip Fletcher’s ominous Servant – who is he? King of the spirits? Master of the House of Usher? Or an actor double-cast as Servant and Spirit for reasons of economy?
What could be lusher than the House of Usher? The walls will crush ya and make mush much musher. That, in essence, is the story Poe wrote – basically a screed against the Transcendentalists, who urged us to develop greater sensitivity in order to better perceive the spiritual universe. In Poe’s telling, Roderick Usher (here played by Greg Marzullo, de-bulked from his days as Dr. Faust) has such an exquisite sensitivity, and it is killing him. A pin dropping sounds like the slam of a manhole cover, ordinary sunlight is blinding, and even the touch of his own clothing upon his body is overwhelming. (Note, however, in this production characters touch each other without effect.) His sister Madeline (Irina Koval) has a mysterious wasting disease. She languishes in the dark corridors of the Usher manse, pallid and languid. Roderick asks the unnamed narrator (here called “Edgar” and played by Theodore M. Snead), an old friend, to visit him and somehow spread cheer on their impossible situation. Edgar comes, but there is nothing he can do, and he watches helplessly as his friend and his friend’s sister, the last of their line, destroy themselves.
Adapters Weinberger and Tsikurishvili goose this story up considerably, adding implications of incest, opium use and a romance between Edgar and Madeline as story elements. These additional lines are a good idea – Poe’s story is too event-slender to support a full-length play – but they are left maddeningly vague. Do Roderick and Madeline truly love each other, or is Roderick raping his sister? Is Madeline truly drawn to Edgar, or is she just trying to make her brother jealous? Or perhaps she sees Edgar as a ticket from her gloomy and sodden home. Who knows?
In lieu of answers, House of Usher presents the periodic appearance of five gorgeous, magnificent, ash-dusted dancers – Courtney Pauroso, Ben Cunis, Marissa Molnar, Renata V. Loman and Scott Brown, joined occasionally by Fletcher, Mazullo and Koval – who present us with such amazing fast-twitch movement that we are distracted from the play’s dilemmas. But amidst their accomplishments they present us with more questions, to wit: who are these people? What are they doing there? Are they the ghosts of the ancestral Ushers, who Roderick has accused of bad acts? Are they Roderick’s spiritual collaborators, or products of his opium dreams? The play calls out for a few lines of dialogue – no more than ten minutes’ worth – to help us understand what we’re seeing.
Mystery and ambiguity serve a play well. But when unanswered questions pile in on each other in such profusion that the audience is unable to track the action, the audience begins to become disengaged, intellectually and emotionally, and theater becomes mere spectacle. This is, I’m sorry to report, what eventually happens in Fall of the House of Usher.
The Fall of the House of Usher continues Thursdays through Sundays until October 31 at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Rosslyn, VA.. Sunday shows are at 3 p.m.; all other shows are at 8. There is no show on October 4. Tickets $30-$35, with discounts for seniors and students. On October 31, Synetic will hold a Vampire’s Ball; come in costume and enjoy some food and wine after the show. Admission to the Ball is $45. Tickets may be had online or by calling 703.824.8060.