If the Walls Could Talk: Synetic's Expressive 'House of Usher'

Irina Koval is Madeline and Theodore M. Snead plays Edgar in
Irina Koval is Madeline and Theodore M. Snead plays Edgar in "The Fall of the House of Usher." (By Raymond Gniewek -- Synetic Theater)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

In Synetic Theater's bristling new adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story, the house of Usher doesn't merely fall. It boogies.

The creative team behind this swift, sleek, throbbing descent into mental sickness and morbidity has come up with an inspired notion: turning the house of Roderick and Madeline Usher -- the last surviving members of a cursed clan -- into a flesh-and-blood character.

Or rather, characters. Five sinewy young men and women together and separately portray the "mansion of gloom" that Poe described in almost human terms -- and they do so in ways that keep director Paata Tsikurishvili's "The Fall of the House of Usher" at the Rosslyn Spectrum in constant, exhilarating flow.

Synetic's take on the classic horror story proves to be one of the company's most arresting pieces in some time -- indeed, one of its best ever. Thanks to the cast's explosive grace and Irina Tsikurishvili's emphatically stylized choreography, "Usher" conforms fluidly to the troupe's trademark athleticism.

Unlike the contortions they've put other literary classics through of late -- most notably, in an obnoxious "Animal Farm" and overly preachy "Frankenstein" -- writers Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger achieve a satisfying integration of movement and text. The dialogue scenes among the principal actors (Greg Marzullo, who plays Roderick; Irina Koval as Madeline; and Theodore M. Snead as Edgar) are admirably compressed and, for the most part, contribute to the air of impending doom.

That is not so easily accomplished, given that Poe's story relies so heavily on images of torpor and decay and introspective passages that are more descriptive than active. The prominent element added by Weinberger and the Tsikurishvilis -- atypically, none of them appears in this piece -- is sexual electricity. And although this psychosexual conceit smacks more of Freud than Poe, it is the extra dimension that allows the tale to dance.

Synetic's "Usher" hews to Poe's setup: The unnamed narrator, christened Edgar on this occasion, is summoned to the house of his old friend Roderick and sister Madeline, who are wasting away physically and spiritually in a house that seems to share their condition. It's in the expression of the attraction between the characters that Synetic departs: Edgar's arrival not only stirs the household, but a liaison between Edgar and Madeline is also the catalyst for Madeline's notoriously gruesome end.

Koval, who has appeared in some of Synetic's most memorable pieces, including "Hamlet . . . the rest is silence" and "Host and Guest," is a magnetic and alluring alternative to the company's gifted star, Irina Tsikurishvili. Although she does not have the moves of the classically trained Tsikurishvili, she possesses a lightness of bearing that serves her well in portraying the ethereal Madeline.

Marzullo, a Synetic stalwart, confers on Roderick a commanding crispness of technique. Snead, new to the company, has yet to fully absorb its lithe aesthetic, but as Edgar he's a strong actor and, when allowed to be, amusing. (Although the dialogue is a cut above some previous productions, there's still a deficiency in actual wit.)

Creatively, though, no deficit exists in the imagining of the house. Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's spartan set consists of four panels into which translucent windows in the outlines of coffins have been cut. Behind those frames lurk five actors, all seemingly dipped in white powder, who emerge to dance as if in fever dreams to the primal, powerful music of Konstantine Lortkipanidze and Giya Kancheli.

These five actors -- Courtney Pauroso, Ben Cunis, Marissa Molnar, Renata Loman and Scott Brown -- keep the production's ominous beat. They are the embodiment of an idea suggested by Poe himself, that this woebegone building is as tormented as the people who inhabit it.

And that is eminently suitable to a company drawn so inexorably to the dark side. For Synetic, no house seems to say home like a haunted one.

The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Irakli Kavsadze; vocal coach, Elizabeth van den Berg. With Philip Fletcher. Through Oct. 31 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-824-8060 or visit

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