Monday, September 17, 2012

The Hypocrites' Production of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."

On the evening of September 17th, hurrying to get out of the rain, I found my way into the maze-like structure that was Chopin Theatre. Wandering downstairs and finding the theatre seating not yet open, I lingered in the waiting area as the crowd poured into the sparsely seated lobby. Finally, a few minutes after the play was due to begin, a booming voice called out "Seating is now open!" In a manner more often found in airports than theatres, the crowd clamored to get into the small stage area as they competed to find decent seats for the sold out show. I took my seat and eagerly awaited the start of theater troupe The Hypocrites' rendition of Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.

Within moments of the show starting, it became apparent that the most frightening scene I would get to experience that evening would be the nighttime rain I fought through on the way in. In the opening scene, the maid greeted a visitor--Usher's childhood friend. Neither the maid nor The Visitor delivered their lines in the atmospheric fashion one might expect from a production of Poe, but rather assaulted the audience with exaggerated, even slapstick, exclamations. One was equally taken aback by The Visitor's zombie-like makeup, whose whiteness was far more dramatic than the supposedly pale Usher. With a fisherman-like accent, the chambermaid delivered her lines with manic ferocity, and one thing was communicated to the audience: this was not a play to be taken seriously.

As the play progressed, the trademark Poe subtlety was apparent. The tragic end was alluded to by the dripping faucet, first noticed by the maid and then shown to The Visitor by Usher. As The Visitor began to go mad with an unnamed fear, the maid foreshadowed what was to come through cryptic utterances which she would then distance herself from by stating, "Oh, I'm just talking about the weather." The bad weather intensified with the tension, a metaphor for all that was going wrong. The Visitor's deteriorating appearance created a profound mood of Angst and despair. Unfortunately, each well executed moment was compromised by the near-constant attempt to make the work cliched and comedic. Just when the suspense might draw you in with a few choice somber moments and a startling clap of thunder, the three central characters would scream in cartoonish fashion, often followed by childlike quips from the maid. We weren't so much seeing a rendition of Poe as a parody of him.

If one knows only two things about Poe it should be this: Poe was terrified of being buried alive and Poe made the ordinary frightening. Sean Graney's The Fall of the House of Usher, by contrast, made the frightening ordinary, even banal. This was most obvious in the final scene, when Lady Madeleine came back for vengeance. In this scene, it became apparent that Usher not only had an incestuous relationship with his ailing sister prior to The Visitor's arrival, but that when he declared her dead, he had actually buried her alive. There are two ways that Graney could have gone with this scene to make it powerful. One way would have been by not restricting the dark and ominous ambience to setting but expand it into the acting as well. Had he done this, by the time the great revelation came, we would have been in such suspense that the final scene could not fail to generate awe. The other way Graney could have gone would have been to tease out the final scene some more, giving a more thorough unfolding of events, to demonstrate the importance this no doubt held for Poe--and the importance it ought to have for us, as viewers. Graney, however, did neither of these things, making the ending seem rushed. By the time the production concluded, I couldn't help but wonder if Graney was giving an alternate interpretation of Poe or if he simply had failed to understand him.

*"His" here refers to the character, not the actress.

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