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Poe Relations: Torn Space Theater’s Fall Of The House Of Usher

Gothic, evocative and highly stylized, this production almost lost me in the beginning as I watched actor Andrew Kottler ride a pantomime horse onto the stage with a “Clippity Clop” sound effect. When actors David Oliver and (the lovely and excellent) Ms. Cassie Gorniewicz initiated their very angular movements (a la Martha Graham) and then indulged a primal scream or two to set the mood, I thought, ” Whoa, this is going to be a long evening.”
 
However,  one quickly adapts to the very broad brushstrokes of melodrama which Director Vincent O’Neill uses to paint this story, which is a nightmare, really. By all appearances, most of the audience gladly climbed aboard for the ride too.
 
This is not theatre in the manner to which one may be accustomed.  To some degree, one has to get over oneself, truly suspend disbelief and let the story flow over you.  It’s not unlike a night at the opera in that respect. As with grand opera, emotion is the objective.  In USHER emotion tumbles out onto the stage: love, self-loathing, pride and fear, especially fear, fear of mortality, fear of life, it’s all been distilled into its purest form.  Every action and every note is concentrated to evoke a given emotion.
 
Once one settles back and has given oneself over, the rewards are rich. The actors display incredible concentration. The mime work alone is extraordinary.  No surprise here, as Director O’Neill once studied under the great master himself, Marcel Marceau. There are some movements made in tandem which seem almost psychic, as one actor will mimic the movement of another, even when that actor is completely out of the sight-line of the mimicking actor. It’s ever so subtle, but truly remarkable stuff. (And the result, no doubt, of some vigorous rehearsal.)
 
Mr. Oliver, in the role of Roderick Usher, transforms himself into a ghastly wraith of a man, a cadaverous extension of the very House of Usher itself. Crumbling, decayed, dark and creepy, the house is a character in its own right, just as it is in Poe’s short story.   The set, by Greg Faust , is deceptively simple,  and works very well in this respect, all the more so given the modest budget. Erin Bahn’s excellent costume design also evokes the Gothic period, and  together they create an Edward Gorey-like tableau which serves the production extremely well.
 
Patty Rihn’s lighting design adds a nicely sinister element, with especially good work when a large window is flung open. Todd Lestmeister’s original score is haunting and, for this old hippy anyway, echoes the old Alan Parson Project, with a quietly melancholic quality which not only serves the concept of “total theatre” but ebbs and flows beautifully with the action on stage.
 
One more technical item worthy of mention: the fog which wafted across the stage was an eerie, delightful phantom. Whether by design or serendipity, on opening night the spectral mist hung in the air as if commanded into place. Another terrific job by Patty Rihn.
 
But ultimately it is Mr. Oliver’s Roderick Usher who breathes life, or death,  as the case may be, into this play. He struts and recoils, he is master of all in his domain, yet vulnerable and all too aware of his own mortality.  Indeed, Roderick is as consumed with the impending and utter mortality of his illustrious, if inbred heritage, as he is with the pending death of his terminally ill sister, Madeline. They represent the last, twisted progeny of the proud line of Usher.

Ms. Gorniewicz offers an ethereal Madeline.  She is “cataleptic” and suffers death-like trances which leave her with characteristically rigid muscles, frozen in awkward poses, which must cause the real actress no end of real muscle fatigue by the end of the play. It is an heroic effort and creates some truly amazing images. At some point the viewer must wonder if Madeline even exists, perhaps she is already dead, or worse, lives among the undead. These are rather advanced horror concepts Poe presents, presaging Bram Stoker by many decades.
 
Andrew Kottler plays both the servant and the friend who is lured to the house in response to a pleading letter Roderick had sent, imploring his visit.  As the servant, Mr. Kottler provides some delightful comic relief, with punchy retorts and witty choreography he adds a dose of life to the fading House of Usher.
 
Mr. Kottler plays the visitor/friend as well. He cuts a dashing figure and, like the servant, provides a warm-blooded foil to the wasted Usher siblings. He holds his own with the mime and movement.  One very minor quibble : Mr. Kottler can lapse into a  “Great Lakes” accent at times, with the occasional tell-tale flat “A”.   While this trait is very much at home in Buffalo (especially among our TV Weathermen),  the accent can wander a bit from the otherwise BBC-like neighborhood of the House of Usher.  
 
Mr. Kottler,  however, makes great sense of a role which, in many ways does not lend itself to sensibility. In the best tradition of horror stories, one wants to shout to him “Get out of the house …NOW !”  But there he is, trying his futile darndest to shore up his old friend Roderick.  Mr. Kottler is at his best when he lets loose with his reading aloud of The Mad Trist,  a dramatic tale of knights and dragons which in turn looses the discovery of things terrible in the bowels of the mansion, and which then literally precipitates the Fall of the House of Usher.
 
This is a horror story told in a way unlike any other you are soon likely to see. It is not meant for all tastes, which is exactly why it is such an exciting and worthwhile effort. I recommend it highly, but make your plans quickly, as it only plays through March 6 and then….nevermore.

FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, at Torn Space Theater 612 Fillmore Ave, a  co-production with the Irish Classical Theatre Company, through March 6.
 

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