Welcome to the House of Usher, where not everything is as it seems and you may find yourself buried alive if you're not careful.
The Fall of the House of Usher, a compact, macabre one act adapted from the Edgar Allan Poe short story by director Sean Graney and produced by The Hypocrites, is all delicious style and atmosphere. Every element has been designed to create a delirious world of over-the-top 19th century Gothic melodrama.
In other words, the scenic, lighting and costume designers (Joey Wade, Jared Moore and Alison Siple, respectively) all have their work cut out for them -- and, for the most part, they deliver.
With the sadistic charm of a Strange Tree show (if you're not familiar with their work, you should be) mixed with a large dose of The Mystery of Irma Vep (a madcap, macabre romp filled with quick costume changes and a two-person cast which Graney directed at Court Theatre a few seasons back), Usher clips along with wit and whimsy, with just the right amount of foreboding danger.
Graney has taken a smart step by employing three gifted actresses (newly appointed Hypocrites Artistic Director Halena Kays along with Tien Doman and Christine Stulik) to play four key roles, one of them Usher himself, with each actress changing costumes, wigs and beards with mind-boggling timing. In fact, they did such a seamless job, I thought there were actually four actresses in the show, and was floored when the curtain call revealed my error.
Yet, there are some issues. Things start off with such stylized, Carol Burnett Show-esque camp, there's only so much further it can go before it grows tiresome. As a result, the action never really gets whipped up into the frenzy that this style of the show demands. Yes, this trio of actresses works hard, but Graney's direction keeps the action firmly rooted on the boxed in stage (though a concluding scenic element does make for a chilling final moment). And on a technical note, the seating arrangement combined with the lighting design resulted in me looking into a bright spotlight for the entire 80 minute running time.
Aside from the momentary blindness, this curious little show certainly captured my imagination.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" plays through September 23 at Chopin Theatre. More info here.
Follow Robert Bullen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ThtrBob