While perusing the sordid tales of Edgar Allen Poe in high school English, you probably thought they’d only come to life in your then-disturbed and reeling head. You were wrong.
In a senior project for the theater studies major, Molly Fox ’08 resurrects Poe’s 1839 “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Replete with hints of incest, decorated by romance and complicated by thematic tensions, Fox’s new adaptation retains the unnerving spirit of the original. Written and directed by Fox, with music composed by Sarah Hirsch ’09, the original musical is aptly titled “Usher.”
At the request of his childhood friend, protagonist James Cleary (Casey Breves ’09) arrives at the Usher estate and is subsequently enticed into the strange world within its gates.
In the mansion reside twins Roderick (Benjamin Wexler ’11) and Madeline (Claudia Rosenthal ’08) along with their servants Olivia (Emma Freeman ’10) and Peter (Andrew Maillet ’11). The mansion is also populated by ghosts of the family line and portraits that come to life — Esme (Alexandra Blissett ’10) and Bertha (Hannah Corrigan ’09). The twins are afflicted by the condition of a strange sensibility and therefore remain on the estate grounds, living out their lives under the family curse: Ushers die young.
The story becomes increasingly complex as James falls in love with Madeline and entreats her to leave the grounds with him for a fuller life when he realizes the estate, the riches and the curse are all an act. Additional intrigue adds dimension to the narrative. And in line with Poe’s tale, the production concludes with the dramatic fall of the mansion.
Though the plots are similar, Poe and Fox emphasize different themes. Juxtaposing scenes of a cryptic nature with Freeman and Maillet’s scenes of comedic relief, Fox produces a drama that effectively highlights the shuddersome original while asserting its unique qualities.
Fox endows Madeline, the female lead, with far more agency than the original piece suggests. She invests in her the power of choice and the understanding necessary to determine her position in the fictional world born of her twin brother.
The music’s use of Latin and an admittedly operatic tone creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the eerie sentiment around which Poe composed his story. A live pit consisting of a violinist (Maillet), cellist (Paul Sherrill ’09) and pianist (Hirsch) add to the atmosphere. The steady words of the reader (Meg Fitzpatrick ’10) add an intangible sense of authenticity to the historical portrait.
Highlighting Poe’s insinuation of Roderick as a hypochondriac, the piece turns on the premise that Roderick has actually projected the products of his vivid and perverse imagination onto his life.
“He has created a fantasy world and cast those around him into roles,” Fox explained.
After multiple drafts completed in a seminar last semester with Tina Landau, Fox conceived “Usher” as a response to Landau’s demand for a true raison d’etre.
In envisioning the project, one of Fox’s goals was to “make people feel ambiguous about theater.” In it, she questions the basic tenets of theater — the notions of scripts and costumes, of actors and props.
“It [the production] focuses on the idea of theatricality,” she said. Throughout the course of the production, “the theatrics actually break down; the conventions break down. That’s why the songs at the end are a cappella; that’s why the actors dismantle the set around them.”
The intensely dramatic fall of the Usher mansion is symbolic of an end to theatrics, confronting the line between show and reality. It demands to know what theater is, where it starts, where it ends.
The staged reading of this provocative production goes up the Off-Broadway Theater this weekend. A full production is slated to premiere in February.