There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The Fall of the House of Usher
The Apothecary – at The Trading Post
Saturday, July 18th @ 4:30 pm
Wednesday, July 22nd @ 9 pm
Friday, July 24th @ 9:30 pm
They say: Dark musical based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. A poor street musician befriends a musical genius, his beautiful wife, and his brilliant sister. A tragic death and a terrible secret turn their ancient mansion into a tomb.
Chris says: I’d probably not read “The Fall of the House of Usher” since some time before the Walkman came on the market. But the story was tucked away somewhere at the back of my head, and as I was watching this musical version, I kept feeling I was watching a work more inspired by than derived from Poe. So when I got home, I did a quick brush-up. I’m no Poe purist, and I’m not here to judge the play by how it does or doesn’t stray, but let’s take a moment and clarify what’s going on.
The plot of this adaptation has surprisingly little to do with its namesake. What the stories have in common is that there’s a visitor to the home of unhinged siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher. In the play, however, the visitor (the narrator of the story) is an itinerant guitarist named William Reed who has been invited to the home, rather than Roderick’s childhood friend. This adjustment provides a pretext for inserting a good deal of music into the story. And in the play, Roderick has a common-law wife named Annabel Lee, the subject of the famous poem by Poe.
Having just reread the story, I can assure you there’s not much there that could viably be staged. To their credit, the adaptors must have understood this. What they’ve created is something more easily staged: a love triangle. William is inexplicably in love with the consumptive Madeline, and inappropriately in love with the beautiful Annabel Lee. Now for the good bits: Madeline murders Annabel, Roderick obsesses, Madeline has a mad scene in a bloody dress, Annabel is trundled out as a Psycho-style corpse.
Gothic melodrama is what an audience really wants, so what vexes me about this production is that the style is flatly realistic most of the time. Is it possible that the only fiction the adaptors have read is by Poe, and the only plays they have seen are by Arthur Miller and August Wilson? This is a production oblivious to all that Poe spawned in the theater, namely the symbolist movement and its creepy stillness, and the expressionist movement with all its screaming and horror.
The score I found surprisingly good. (It’s now the day after, and I still have tunes in my head.) Some of it is very melodious, some of it jarring. The lyrics, on the other hand, are hit-or-miss. When the lyricist is plainly Poe himself—some of the lyrics come from the poem “Annabel Lee”—everything is great. But when the maudlin song goes, “Love is never simple / Love is beauty / Love is you,” I’m reaching for a sharp object with which to do harm. There is one very amusing song about the large, brown rats in the wall, but I have mixed feelings about its effectiveness, as it introduces a tone of comedy where one of horror would be preferable.
See it if: You enjoy PBS historical dramas.
Skip it if: You want to feel a chill on your spine.