Halloween is done and gone, but Scena Theatre’s aptly sepulchral Poe double-header — The Fall of the House of Usher followed after intermission by director Robert McNamara’s solo performance of The Tell-Tale Heart — is still neatly matched to the season.
Not only is Usher set, in one of several Poe phrasings that playwright Steven Berkoff’s adaptation uses as a kind of mantra, “in the autumn of the year,” but by the time the show closes on Nov. 29, the holidays will be hard upon us. ‘Tis the season of joyless and compulsory engagements, and surely no social call was ever more dismal than the three days’ journey the dapper narrator of Usher (David Bryan Jackson) undertakes when summoned by his withered and demented old chum, Roderick (Eric M. Messner). “I am decayed, but not unstable,” insists the chalk-pallored Roderick, his cadences creaking like a crypt door.
As those incestuous hypochondriacs Roderick and Madeleine Usher Messner and Colleen Delany get to have all — well, most — of the fun, smeared with ghoulish makeup and deploying some stylized movement and voice work to lull us into their shared abyss of delirium and madness. It’s a pleasure to watch them suffer.
Bryan spends most of the evening as their increasingly bewildered straight man. In one of the show’s lighter moments, he races to spit out his pleasantries about the weather before Roderick can interrupt him with another coughing fit. But Bryan gets to share in their dreamlike choreography in his secondary role as the butler Oswald, hunched and sputtering like the archetypal Igor.
“The clouds hang oppressively low” indeed at the H Street playhouse as a fog machine works overtime to pump the room full of rheumatic soup, allowing set and lighting designers Michael C. Stepowany and Alisa Mandel, respectively, to conjure the decrepit Manse Usher with little more than some chairs and a few curtains. David Crandall’s ominous sound palette rumbles with foreboding, seemingly from the bottom part of the piano. It’s always creepy, often funny, and never scary. There’s abundant dread, but no real menace, which is perhaps why the whole enterprise comes off as just a bit more suffocating than is strictly necessary. But you can’t say they haven’t honored the intention of the author.
The evening’s second, shorter half is less demanding and less rewarding, a capable but indistinct recitation of the famous tale of senseless murder and subconscious remorse.
This review appears in today’s Examiner. All photos by Ian C. Armonstrong, courtesy Scena Theatre.