The Fall of the House of Usher

Adapted by Linda Manning from the story by Edgar Allen Poe
Directed by Douglas Wagner
The Invisible Theatre Company
Chelsea Playhouse (532-6719)
125 W. 22nd St. (closes Dec. 24)
Equity Showcase
Review by Sarah Stevenson

Theatrical adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's Fall of the House of Usher are so prevalent that it seems difficult to believe that a truly original interpretation is still possible. But believe it -- the Invisible Theatre Company's adaptation of the classic tale is strikingly fresh, thanks both to playwright Linda Manning's bold vision and to the glorious physicality of the Groundwerx Dance Theatre, the athletic and precise dance troupe who personified the forces of the House of Usher itself. Dancers Heather Ahern, Peter Bramante, Donna Meierdiercks and Cathy Nicoli vividly captured the raw, untamed sexuality and menace at the foundation of Poe's tale. Through the interweaving of dance, movement, and drama, director Douglas Wagner provided a startling and at times terrifying vision of Poe's tale.

At times, early in the piece, the dialog seemed like mere filler, providing a concrete plot to grasp onto, but really just marking time before the visceral movement section. This was particularly problematic in the scenes between William Hawken (Derek Stearns) and Roderick Usher (Michael Pinney), which lack the fire that characterized the performance overall. In these scenes, drama, as an artistic form, seemed to pale in comparison to the expressive powers of dance. But this concern disappeared once Madeline Usher (Linda Manning) entered the scene, for Manning had a dynamic presence powerful enough to help dramatic scenes hold their own against the dance. Deftly handling the madness that lies at the heart of Poe's tale, Manning oscillated from a petulant little girl, to a proper young lady, to a disturbing sexual force.

Pinney was less impressive as her brother Roderick, often coming off merely as a rather bored, artsy type. He was at his best, however, in the humorous moments that the script offers him. One particularly brilliant moment came when he dryly discoursed on the fact that people would sometimes call him Rod, which, needless to say, really didn't suit him a bit. In fact, the amount of humor that Manning has incorporated into the script, without compromising its horror, is one of its greatest accomplishments. Thus the spirits transform at times into mischievous imps, while retaining their menacing sexuality minutes later.

Kudos are in order for puppet maker Danita Knight, whose spindly dogs managed to alternate between hounds of hell guarding the manor and good-natured pups sniffing at the banquet.

Wagner took full advantage of Deborah L. Jensen's wonderful set, which he also lit to perfection. Marilyn Salvatore's costumes were also effective, emphasizing but never overdoing the raw sexuality. Wagner and Manning combined dance, drama, and visual imagery to create a truly stunning theatrical performance that is an ideal setting for Poe's dark tale.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 Sarah Stevenson
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