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Fall of the House of Usher

Theatre Review by Lindsey Wilson

Somewhere inside the House of Usher is a demon just dying to bust loose. And no, I’m not talking about the ghost of the house itself or the creepy, incestuous siblings that inhabit it, but the primal energy that gets a big old hand clapped over its mouth every time it gears up to scream.

Creative Mechanics has played a wise card in reviving Steven Berkoff’s Fall of the House of Usher just in time for Halloween, and from the initial images (and sounds) that greet the audience, it looks to be a flawless ride. Allen Cutler’s cobwebbed, shredded, and dusty set does more than simply suggest the notorious house; it creates a reality so effortless to immerse yourself in that the absence of acres or even actual walls seems a trifle. When paired with Chris Meade’s chilling sound design (this is a supreme example of how crucial sound is to atmosphere!) and Erik C. Bruce’s shadowy lighting, the House of Usher transforms into itself a terrifying, gasping being capable of hurling destruction at those who disturb it.

Likewise, Frank Blocker as Roderick Usher could simply sit on stage and stare at the audience for the hour and I’d still be petrified. The level of horror he achieves is astounding in its simplicity — a claw-like extension of a pale finger is the equivalent of running that same finger down your spine. When he speaks, Mr. Blocker captures the atonal quality that makes listening to him both painful and captivating. He is a true Edgar Allen Poe character in every sense, jumping straight from the pages of the original novella and straight into our nightmares.

As the vampy Madeline Usher, Shannon Maddox (who also designed the wonderfully rotting costumes) plays helpless insanity and dangerous strength to the hilt. With a beefed up role in this version, Madeline becomes a ghostly presence, drifting in and out of the action with glassy eyes and bared teeth, the delicate balance of her temperament a trap waiting to snap.

If only these two - who are either the scariest siblings or the best dark comedy team ever - could feed off each other’s macabre sensibilities and waltz with each other through the entire play with undisturbed gruesomeness, then Fall of the House of Usher would be alarmingly perfect Halloween fare. There are a few small, niggling interruptions, however, that break the flow of the show and restrain the actors from fully throwing themselves into the depths of this hellish tale.

The most glaring example is the oddly cast Janice Herndon as Edgar and—only briefly—hunchbacked servant Oswald. In the midst of this eerie environment, Ms. Herndon’s flat and lackluster portrayal immediately jerks the audience away from the delicious efforts of the Usher siblings, cutting in sharply and breaking the mood every time she speaks. Especially with Steven Berkoff’s style of writing, the moments where Edgar and Roderick are speaking simultaneously seem like an exercise in frustration. This simply made me wish I could listen to Roderick alone, for the vocal battle Edgar puts up is more an annoyance than a success.

As phenomenal as they are as Roderick and Madeline, Mr. Blocker and Ms. Maddox do seem slightly uncomfortable with Berkoff’s tactics. Each time they are forced to replay a scene or relay an emotion in mime, the energy slows a little and the magic falters. They are at their best when left alone and free to explore their characters, not restricted by Berkoff’s devices. They carry out the shifts wells, though dutifully, and perhaps director Gabriel Shanks could have concentrated more on keeping the energy up during these slow moments.

All in all, Fall of the House of Usher is frightfully good fun. There is a nice mix of ghastliness and elegance to the production, and as Halloween approaches, those who brave the stairs up into the Independent Theatre will not be disappointed. I promise you will jump at least once, and really, who doesn’t enjoy being scared at the theatre — in a good way?

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Creative Mechanics
Fall of the House of Usher
Through November 7
Independent Theater, 52-A West 8th Street near 6th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444