We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The audience’s approach into the Scena Theatre’s The Fall of the House of Usher, like that of the unnamed narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, is eerie and foreboding. There, on a bare parquet floor sharply lit by a coffin-sized rectangle of light, lies Madeline Usher (Linda Murray), twitching and convulsing to waves of techno-creep music. Following a scream and a blackout, you meet the other master of the house: brother Roderick (Christopher Henley), who like his sister suffers from weird maladies, which he attributes to inbreeding among earlier Ushershis senses have grown so unbearably acute that he can eat only the blandest food and can’t abide the smell of flowers. Into the decaying manse comes Roderick’s childhood friend (Carter Jahncke) to try to alleviate their illsboredom in Madeline’s case, melancholy in Roderick’s. But the friend arrives in time only to witness the death of the Usher line. Steven Berkoff’s adaptation remains true to Poe’s story, in that the house serves as metaphor for the disintegrating family (“These walls are my skin!” Roderick cries as an electrical storm threatens), and adds layers to itby relaying incidents from several points of view, for example, and laying out the full horror of Madeline’s fate on stage instead of just having Roderick relate it. Michael C. Stepowany’s sparse seta sheer ragged drape over a tall window, simple straight-backed chairs hung with tattered black crepesuggests lost elegance, as do Alisa Mandel’s romantic and moth-eaten costumes. The discord of composer David Crandall’s music assaults the audience’s nervous systems as you suppose all sounds do Roderick’s, and Lynn Joslin’s lighting actually shocks when lambent blue shadows suddenly scatter in the bright sunlight of an opened window. Henley and Murray are appropriately stylized for the nonlinear script. (Lissome Murray, a fine little screamer, also choreographed the waking-dead dance scenes, which give the impression brother and sister have been closer than is healthy.) Overall, the evening, under Robert McNamara’s direction, achieves a re-creation of Poe’s dark vision in a sensuous, decadent hour. After Usher, however, McNamara gives a fine staged reading of another Poe story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which unfortunately allows the shock of the cataclysmic end of Usher to dissipate. How much more delicious it would be to allow the fright to wear off slowly as you cautiously exit the theater.Janet Hopf