Edgar Allan Poe’s tale has grown so large in the literary imagination that we forget that the original was a short story, less than 7200 words in length and more atmosphere than incident. It is less a story than an invitation to the reader to create a story, and the Pallas Theatre Collective has accepted that invitation, with a vengeance. Molly Fox’s book, and in particular the soaring, operatic music of Sarah Hirsch, has made something that is powerful, moving, gorgeous and entirely satisfying.
You know Poe’s story, or, if you don’t, you can read it here. In Fox’s telling, Poe’s unnamed narrator is the journeyman artist James Cleary (Mikey Cafarelli), who is invited by the manservant (the amusing Luke Cieslewicz) of an old classmate and friend, Roderick Usher (Jason Hentrich) to come to the Usher manse and paint Roderick’s portrait.
It seems that Roderick suffers from a condition in which he is oppressively sensitive to light, sound, flavor, smell and touch, and thus believes himself not long for the planet. (We now call this condition hyperesthesia, and consider it a symptom of a neurological disorder, but many scholars think that Poe was making fun of the transcendentalists, who believed enlightenment came through the senses.) Roderick has brought James to the House of Usher so that James can preserve Roderick’s image with those of his ancestors, whose portraits hang in the manse’s gallery.
And what ancestors they are! There’s Alabric the slaver (Jon Jon Johnson), Merowald the prostitute (Hilary Morrow), Elistan the opium-eater (Russell Silber) and Elifred the mass murderer (Laura Rocklyn). They are not merely portraits, but ghosts of the place, eager to snatch the living into the land of the dead.
Speaking of which: there is a backstory. In the carefree days of their youth, James loved Roderick’s twin sister Madeline (Kristina Riegle), and she loved him right back. But suddenly she broke the relationship off, and thereafter James never saw either Usher again until summoned to paint Roderick’s portrait. When he asks after her, Roderick dismissively explains that she is in Europe, heedless of his health, but we soon learn that she is in the House of Usher, dying.
Well, that’s enough of that. Let’s talk now about Pallas’ beautiful and imaginative production of the piece, beginning with Sarah Hirsch’s gorgeous score. House of Usher invokes Andrew Lloyd Webber (my dear bride, who knows a thing or three about musicals, compares it to Webber’s The Woman in White, which ran for about a year and a half on the West End but only briefly on Broadway) but is not imitative; where Webber is occasionally overstated or sentimental, Hirsch is stern and straightforward. Her choral pieces are explosively lush; they bloom like a room full of snapdragons, and leave a scent. The music she writes is difficult to sing, but when sung correctly, has a powerful effect.
Fortunately, House of Usher has the astonishing Hentrich in the central role. Hentrich, whose beautiful tenor sounds so powerful that he could sing in Nationals Stadium without a mike, never overwhelms the tiny Anacostia Arts Center space. Instead, he seduces the room with his precise and expressive voice, so that it sounds like the music is coming from the inside of our heads, instead of the front of the room.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
Closes August 24, 2014
Pallas Theatre Collective at
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Road, SE
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
In the same sense that there can be a play with music, House of Usher is an opera with words, (Pallas characterizes it as a musical) and Hentrich establishes his character as strongly by his acting as by his singing. His Roderick is an apostle of robust despair, who holds on to his victimhood and the unfairness of his life with the zeal of a saint embracing his religion. We get that from Hentrich from the moment when James rouses him from his slumber as he enters the house.
Riegle is almost as good. Her beautiful, mellow soprano adds a note of languor and inevitability to her melancholy character, and in songs like “I Might Have Taken You Dancing” and “Wait a Little Longer,” we get a glimpse of the woman Madeline might have become, if she had been a little less docile and trusting. It is a bravura performance, and when she matches voices with Hentrich (as in “Before We Could Speak”) the effect is almost religious.
In fact, the entire cast sings beautifully, including Amy Conley as the officious maid. Director Tracey Elaine Chessum and choreographer Chris Martin move the huge cast around the small stage sharply, and we never notice that the immense House of Usher actually occupies about a hundred square feet. The whole piece is chockablock with gorgeous moments – such as when some portraits Cleary is finishing (played by Rocklyn and Morrow) chide him for his miserable social life. It is a wonderful experience.
Which is not to say that it is perfect. Cafarelli has an excellent voice, but it is underpowered when he matches up with Hentrich and Riegle. Fox may want to reconsider a flashback scene in which Madeline tries to get James to go to the beach with her; the lines seem lifeless, which can cause the actors to try to put more into them than the text justifies. I heard three separate explanations for the fate of Roderick’s mother, and while I realize that the House of Usher is full of secrets and lies these seemed more to be defects in the book than deliberate subterfuges.
But really, so what? This is a fabulous experience, and if you love musicals you will kick yourself for missing this. And – I don’t mean to be crass, but that’s the way God made me – it’s only twenty-five simoleans, which is, outrageously, the cost of two good Scotches at some downtown restaurants. Not that I’d know anything about that.
The Fall of the House of Usher, based on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, book and lyrics by Molly Fox, music by Sarah Hirsch. Directed by Tracey Elaine Chessum (who also did the set design), assisted by Kathleen Mason. Music Direction by Arielle Bayer’ choreography by Chris Martin. Featuring Jason Hentrich, Kristina Riegle, Mikey Cafarelli, Luke Cieslewicz, Amy Conley, Laura Rocklyn, Hilary Morrow, Russell Silber and Jon Jon Johnson (who also plays the violin). Costume and makeup design by Jen Began, sound design by Kevin O’Connell, lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke. Erica Feidelseit was the stage manager. Produced by Pallas Theatre Collective . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.