Friday, October 10, 2008

Theater and dance join forces in the 'House of Usher'

The Resort Players of Mount Washington Valley has teamed with Axis Dance Company for a well mounted but flawed production of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which continues its run at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. Oct. 10 and 11 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 2 p.m.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” is among Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous works and could be a fertile source for drama, but the adaptation by playwright Steven Berkoff stretches the material of the story far too thin. At 90 minutes, including an intermission, the production still feels too long. The show would’ve made a great 30- or 40-minute one-act, but at this length it feels needlessly padded.

Poe’s story was about the sickly Usher siblings, Roderick (Tom O’Reilly) and Madeline (Rae McCarey), who are visited by a friend (Dan Phelps), who attempts to put Roderick’s unstable mind at ease. Berkoff’s adaptation does little to expand upon this simple premise, and what additions he does make are more confusing than compelling.

There is an allusion to vampirism that is made early on and never referenced again. At times the actors will switch from being a third-person narrator back into their characters. Berkoff’s script becomes particularly desperate when one character actually pulls a copy of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” from a bookshelf and begins reading from it. It is as if this was the only way Berkoff could work these lines into his adaptation.

The play’s shortcomings fall squarely on Berkoff’s script. Undoubtedly this material can be extended successfully, but Berkoff doesn’t do Poe’s work justice. It is a shame the script wasn’t stronger, as all the elements of the Resort Players' production are top notch.

The lighting design by Christopher S. Chamber generates a moody atmosphere. The music comprised of disjointed string and piano arrangements paired with black and white video footage reflect the unstable minds of the characters. Tom Rebmann’s sparse set design, with chairs hanging from the ceiling and a slanted floor, creates the feeling of a decaying house.

There are several modern dances inserted into the show choreographed by Jeanne Limmer and performed by Miriah Mosher, Eliza Dubie and Erica Perry. These dances, particularly one set during a rainstorm in the second act, are effective at enhancing the sense of madness and horror of the material.

The actors can’t be faulted either. O’Reilly, speaking in a hushed, mousy voice, seems like the quintessential slightly-mad Poe character. McCarey doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue, but gives a physically expressive performance. She has some priceless facial expressions during a dinner scene that provide the production with its few moments of levity. Phelps is required to play straightman to the peculiar Ushers, and he fills the role well.

When the show allows for Poe’s language to stand on its own, it is spectacular to hear it spoken. The juiciest parts of the production don’t come until the second act, which is genuinely frightening and, if you make it through the meandering first act, worth the price of admission.

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