May 3, 2012
The courage and innovation of Mike Bickal’s senior project in theater deserves merit. The Fall of the House of Usher, adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, set out to use all of Benedict Hall as its stage. During the performance, the audience was free to roam around the building as they liked. The characters, seemingly unable to realize they were not alone, felt at home in Benedict (now Madeline and Roderick Usher’s house), and acted undisturbed.
I had been eased into the whole process by sitting (walking) in one of the rehearsals. Still, during the show, I couldn’t help but to sympathize with the confused gazes and hesitant movements from the other members of the audience. The production was impeccable; it took care to get every detail right, from the creation of a replica of Roderick’s library to the synchrony of its grand sound effects. However, The Fall of the House of Usher was humble enough to dispense with certain formalities that might have turned out to be quite comforting to the audience. The production counted with no introductory preamble to establish what the rules were, or at least warn the spectators, as they walked into Benedict, that the play had already started. Without a set course of action, the audience was left free and fearing to immerse themselves in the play.
Soon we realize that the Ushers have always lived in the house; that their physician is more than familiar with place; and that the servants are elegant—but too tied to their sense of duty to ever leave their proper place. Only Mr. Clemm, the friend of the family who has arrived at the house shortly before us, offers a possibility of connection for the audience. In fact, the newcomer plays the role of the audience within the dynamics of this four-character framework. Mr. Clemm, a mere guest like the members of the audience, appears immune to the maddening effect that the house has on its regular occupants. Mr. Clemm’s role is to challenge the mysticism of the house and the delusion of the Ushers, and his rational insights often coincide with those of the audience.
Madeline and Roderick are sick, although only the sister has been diagnosed as such by the physician. The physician himself breathes some of Mr. Clemm’s skepticism, which is feature common to his practice. In the physician’s case, however, it is precisely his skepticism that makes him incapable to treat the Ushers. Even in a moment of crisis, like when Madeline has a major breakdown, all the physician can think of are the bare needs of the body. He asks her, “Do you hurt? Are you cold? Are you hungry?” Failing to realize that sedatives, blankets, and food won’t do much to help her condition.
The house of Usher, ironically situated in Benedict Hall (“blessed” hall), is damned. The physician resigns his position and leaves the house during the play. On the one hand he realized that his traditional methods are pointless and cannot address the needs of his patients; and on the other, the concept of a “curse” was too much for him to cope with. Madeline’s true doctor is Roderick, and vice-versa. They are siblings and twins, “a bond like no other.” Only they understand the conflict of the other. Perhaps, being surrounded by people who can’t comprehend them, and finding themselves alone in their reciprocal madness, the two main characters’ situation signal the inevitable end of The Fall of the House of Usher: collapse.
A few days after the play, Leslie Cohen ’12 remarked, “looking back at my experience, the play seems like a dream.”
The production contained major surrealist elements, but you might want to call it a nightmare for precision.
The Fall of the House of Usher made the most out of the theatrical possibilities of its “immersive” structure to spook the spectators down to their bones. The audience members were not spectators in the traditional sense, but rather “guests.” Guests they may have been, but the weren’t given any hospitable clues of what to look for. Should we linger in the room after the scene was over or follow the action? And follow what action anyway, since at any point in the play two or more important scenes could be taking place at the same time? For instance, the physician was probing Madeline’s state in the second floor while Roderick reveled his own condition to Mr. Clemm downstairs. This lack of grounding left the audience members edgy and insecure throughout the play, which didn’t help they deal with Poe’s already morbid story.
The catch is that towards the end, the servants gently guided each and all of the spectators to a single room. For the first time in the play, the audience was getting some direction. Little did they know that by walking into Mr. Ushers’ office they were setting themselves up.
Those who, unlike the doctor, stayed until the end, took part in the scariest scene of the performance. After toasting to his sister’s death, Roderick enters into a furious trance. He reveals that he has long heard others’ voices and steps around the house. Now the house, the “it” which has haunted the life of its inhabitants for generations, comes alive. Now phantasmagorical noises burst out from the ceiling, floor, and walls, as it were. Now all of Benedict shaking (sic)! Finally Madeline’s own ghost returns to close the play. The house of Usher is a dreadful place, but it was a pleasure to see.