“This was more like Poe than Poe,” said a man on the way out of the lobby, and certainly the Synetic Theater Company does have a way of distilling things. What it has distilled from The Fall of the House of Usher is a disturbingly intimate, feverishly sexy feast for the senses—an apt approach, that, for a tale that turns on the painfully heightened perceptions that keep a man locked away from the world.
A refresher, if you haven’t cracked your Collected Poe since high school: A nameless narrator, responding to a desperate letter from an old friend, arrives at the titular estate only to discover a dank pile of a house that looks ready to tumble into the fetid lake lapping at its foundations. Inside, the exhausted-looking Roderick Usher explains that his exquisitely heightened senses make the world a constant torment to him: Every noise is a thunderclap, most fabric so much sandpaper, every flavor an assault, and the constant strain, he says, is killing him.
His sister, too. The doctors despair of lovely Madeleine, who like Roderick hasn’t been outdoors in an age, and soon enough she does in fact give up the ghost—more or less. To say more would be to spoil a delicious shiver or two, for anyone who’s forgotten, so let’s just say that the Hollywood pitch might be “Think The Tell-Tale Heart meets The Cask of Amontillado”—and that Paata Tsikurishvili’s staging of the story’s Gothic-horrific climax is as powerfully creepy as anything you’ll encounter as autumn accelerates toward the graveyard reek of Halloween.
Company veteran Greg Marzullo is the twitchy Roderick, and he makes his first appearance curled in a near-fetal ball, eyes darting, fingers working, feet tapping to the jagged rhythms of house composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze. (The choreography, core to any Synetic show, is by company co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili, and the show’s score, as usual, is a mood-setting, scare-mongering thing, its agitated arpeggios and shrieking violins essential to the production’s otherworldly atmospherics.) Then, much earlier than in the original story, Irina Koval’s Madeleine drifts in for a wordless but nonetheless suggestive encounter with her brother—an early sign that Synetic’s hardly going to be slavish in its devotion to the source material.
Incestuous longings, seething jealousies, druggy manipulations, and desperate pleas for help—all these get either invented or teased out of the short story’s deepest, murkiest subtext as the 90-minute evening whirls by. There are victims here and more clearly drawn villains, where the original traffics in a kind of mutually draining parasitism; the result, if it’s a little less ambiguous than Poe’s version, and thus less hypnotically disorienting, certainly is grotesquely stylish. If nothing else, the Tsikurishvilis have found a sinister way to animate that malevolent house—with a corps of pallid, writhing figures who spend a good part of the evening half-concealed and whispering behind its translucent “walls”—and to bring the edifice crashing dramatically down at the story’s panicky, hyperventilating conclusion.
One jarring note: A woefully underwhelming gesture, appended to that collapse as a kind of exclamation point, that might have been ripped off from a high-school staging of Phantom of the Opera. It’s not quite fatal, though it certainly is both unnecessary and surprisingly tasteless, coming from a creative team that consistently creates some of the most eye-popping images on any local stage. And along with that loss of ambiguity, and an uneven performance or two, it helps make The Fall of the House of Usher more a Gothic guilty pleasure than a substantive example of Synetic’s dark art.