OH, MAN -- I WAS PREDISPOSED TO LIKE HOUSE OF USHER. I'm impressed by any and all attempts to do straight-up horror in the carnival that is Fringe.
The writing features some very elaborate, mannered language, which is a huge plus for me. But there's an art to delivering those long, winding sentences in such a way that they seem effortless. Here, there was a great tension surrounding the dialogue; it never felt spontaneous to me, but recited. Moreover, this is high, torn-bodice, bosom-heaving melodrama, and it takes a very special kind of performer, with a mastery of a very specific kind of stylized performance, to pull that off convincingly -- to make the required leaps from heightened emotion to heightened emotion -- and the effect often came off as simply shrill. Actually, the audience found themselves laughing inappropriately more than once; you feel bad for the performers, but the emotional leaps are so sudden that they can come off as hilariously jarring, rather than effectively startling.
The play itself isn't an adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, but rather one of those speculative story-behind-the-story affairs: specifically, of Edgar Allan Poe and the tragic events that inspired him to write.
I'll confess that, for all my love of meta-fiction, I've always been dubious of this particular device. It may be my own intimacy with the subject (akin to my physician father's inability to sit through an episode of House). I know too well how tedious and unglamorous the actual act of writing is -- a story that accurately reflects that is almost certainly dull, but one that doesn't feels inauthentic.
An interesting counter-example may actually be in one of the pieces from This is Where Your Free-time Goes to Die, which details the seventeen-minute debate the writer had with himself over whether the word "trapezoid" or "rhombus" is funnier, and I was in stitches the whole time, because that level of obsession read to me as so true. By contrast, I found that Poe's grand, romantic struggles in this production rang false.
That said, I'm thrilled by the ballsiness of the project, enough so that I'm loath to say anything to slap it down. And, man, do I ever want to see more from this company in the future ... but I'm afraid I simply can't recommend this particular production in its current form.
Related performance details:
House of Usher by Coin Purse Theatre Company is on stage at Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Remaining shows are Saturday, 8/13 (7 pm); Sunday, 8/14 (2:30 pm).
Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics on the scene.
About the author: phillip low is a playwright and poet, storyteller and mime, theatre critic and libertarian activist. He has won acclaim at such varied venues as the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, Spirit in the House, FoolFest, and the DC, Indianapolis, Iowa, and Kansas City Fringe Festivals -- even as far as Melbourne, Australia. At the 2007 Minnesota Fringe, his one-man show Descendant of Dragons was the bestselling show in its venue and awarded a coveted Fringe Encore slot, while in 2009 The Rise of General Arthur was nominated for Best Spoken Word Performance by FringeFamous. He is a co-founder of the Rockstar Storytellers and founder and producer of Maximum Verbosity. He has his own show in the Fringe Festival this year, Camelot is Crumbling; he's also assisting with the writing and direction of Minnesota Middle Finger with Ben San Del, as well as performing in Macbeth: The Video Game Remix with Theatre Arlo.