The Fall of the House of Usher
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 15, 2009
In Brent Cirves's musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, there is a song, "Nothing Beautiful Is Simple." It is the mantra of the characters at the center of this dark piece; the Family Usher descends deeper and deeper into darkness and insanity, much like their castle, literally sinking into the ground year after year. Playing a short engagement at the Connelly Theatre at this year's NY Fringe Festival, Cirves's production, with a gorgeous haunting score by Mike Johnson, is a beautiful, complex portrait of love, death, and madness and the people caught in the whirlwind of the House of Usher.
Poe's stories are re-imagined by Cirves through the eye of balladeer William Reed. He recounts memories of his stay at the home of Roderick and Madeline Usher. Reed, a traveling busker, meets and befriends the eccentric prospective composer Roderick on the NYC streets and is taken back to his house. There he meets Roderick's equally peculiar sister, Madeline—who falls instantly in love with William—and Roderick's lady love, Annabel Lee (of Poe's famous poem), whom William begins to fall for.
All share their love of music, holding competitions to compose the best songs, but from the beginning, it is obvious that something dark is amiss. The House of Usher seems to have a magnetic, supernatural pull, compelling its inhabitants to stay. And Madeline and Roderick themselves seem far from normal and are harboring some grisly secrets.
Cirves's script starts out fairly solid and gets deeper and more nuanced as the play progresses. The musical numbers flow nicely with the plot, as song grow more out of the characters actually playing music than the "ordinary people break out in song" approach. Mike Johnson's score actually tends to contradict the title "Nothing Beautiful Is Simple," as many of his best moments in the play come when Reed simply sings while accompanying himself on classical guitar. The reprise of "The Ballad of Annabel Lee" is beautifully composed. Laura Cirves's costumes fit the period well and the set does a great job of representing the cavernous house even with FringeNYC limitations.
The cast is very consistent, all with strong voices and acting chops to match. Particularly standing out is Mark Rascati, playing Reed, who delivers a nice, subtle performance and has a beautiful folk voice to go along with his classical guitar skills. He's a bit inconsistent on his Southern accent but the performance is strong enough that this barely matters. C.J. Bergin and Mary Myers, as Roderick and Madeline respectively, get better and better as their descent to madness deepens.
The Fall of the House of Usher ends up having the feel of a dark fairy tale, told through minstrel's song. Cirves's production is compelling with more than a few nice moments of creepiness and horror injected in. It is both lyrical, yet gruesome; which seems to me like the way Poe would have wanted his vision presented.