Edgar Allan Poe may be so well remembered for his stories of horror that contemporary readers might regard him as a sort of steam-age Stephen King. But a new play, Usher, uses his chilling work as a point of departure for examining the writer as a thinker and an artist ahead of his time, as well as imagining what was left unwritten.
In the play, Roderick, the scion of the once-great Usher family, summons a childhood friend to his remote mountain abode, the great House of Usher. The visitor, who goes nameless through the play, soon realizes he’s in the presence of two sick siblings with a pretty twisted relationship. Roderick suffers from a hypersensitivity that calls for quiet, darkness and a bread-and-water diet. His sister Madeline, who shares a romantic past with the visitor, experiences fainting spells and is often confined to her bed due to what Roderick calls an incurable illness. Roderick and his former chum spend days painting and noodling out waltzes on their guitars, and sharing their thoughts about science and art.
Soon, the visitor learns Madeline Usher’s not too pleased with her isolated home life: She craves nature and pleasure, but is constantly ordered to rest and bed by her brother. A romance between Madeline and the visitor is rekindled, chaperoned by her disagreeable brother, who is anxious not to see his sickly sister excited.
Things get weirder when the boyhood friend discovers that Roderick is letting Madeline’s “quickened blood” with leeches and forced bleedings. Roderick accidentally bleeds his sister to death, and she’s entombed beneath the house.
As usual, it’s the divided house that falls — in this case, the division runs so deep that Madeline and Roderick Usher are two inverted personalities separated at birth: she is extroverted and sensual and he is introverted and mental. The playwright seizes upon this dichotomy for a great dialectic: the conflict between sensual yearnings and mental discipline.
Usher is longtime theater reviewer John Sousanis’ first play, as well as his directorial debut. The writer makes some unusual extrapolations from Poe’s scare yarn, including a larger role for ghostly sister Madeline as a sort of doomed love interest.
Sousanis says he was drawn to the strength of the tale’s mood, but wanted to explore Poe’s intellectual side, that of a man concerned with philosophy and science. The director argues that Poe’s descriptions of Usher’s paintings and musical improvisations may have augured such far-off trends as impressionism and jazz. Perhaps Sousanis goes too far when he has Roderick drizzling paint over a canvas like an action painter.
But this reviewer wonders if any playwright should direct his own play. A fresh eye catches a playwright’s blind spots, often imbuing the text with richer meaning. Under another’s direction, the play may not have leaned so heavily on reverent symbolism and ritual. At times it all gets a bit thick, with the players constantly opening and closing things, whether drapes, boxes or tombs. The characters toy with these baldly symbolic props, then set them aside. Though these rituals furnish some of the play’s most visually and technically arresting moments, audiences may wish this piece more often would rise above mere allegory and fill in these charming characters batting about art and ideas.
Some scenes in Usher seem incongruous. For example, when actor Patrick Loos, performing as Roderick, appears for his opening monologue, it’s a burst of shouted verse, delivered so fiercely his veins stand out. Is this the same agoraphobic man who quails at the sound of a music box? For one so timorous of sensation, he rages like King Lear.
Local actor Darrell Glasgow brings a cheerful cordiality to his role as the visitor, and Shannon Camara Sanville turns in a poised performance as the swooning sexpot Madeline, if her elocution is a bit plain.
This claustrophobic story is well-suited to a black box theater such as Planet Ant. The set design exploits this with deceptive ease, using simple but effective tricks to shorten and deepen the set. Thanks to Rachael Nardecchia’s intelligent lighting design, we experience the intimacy of candlelight and lanterns, and high-key light that plays upon Sanville’s Kate Winslet-like features, in addition to the requisite eerie green hazes. Also of note is Joe Colosi’s adept skills as a costume designer, even if the visitor’s foppish neckwear leaves the unlikely suitor wrapped up like a box of candy.
Sousanis’ production is uneven, but it’s great that Planet Ant offers playwrights an opportunity to hone their craft. Here’s hoping that the house on Caniff keeps standing strong.
At Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck; 313-365-4948) Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m, until April 10. Play features fog effects and slow-flicker strobe lighting. Michael Jackman is a Metro Times writer and copy editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org