`House of Usher' falls with a thud. Glass, Foreman, Poe: three sensibilities at odds on stage

In earlier works, minimalist composer Philip Glass carved out new dramatic territory. His ``Satyagraha'' and ``Akhnaten'' were diaphanous imagistic musical theater pieces performed in ancient and oriental languages, works which shifted the course of modern opera. Two years ago, Glass's composing career took a small lane-shift of its own. ``The Juniper Tree,'' a collaboration with composer Robert Moran and librettist Arthur Yorinks, was an English-language chamber opera, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. In other words, a traditional narrative with a real dramatic climax. When staged by Andrei Serban, the Romanian deconstructionist director, ``The Juniper Tree'' was remarkable for its striking visual - rather than musical or dramatic - elements.

Now, in ``The Fall of the House of Usher,'' a musical version of Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic horror story, the avant-garde composer is wrestling anew with traditional narrative. And in this collaboration, now having its world premi`ere at the American Repertory Theatre (ART), Glass's cool formalism has been staged with the campy spontaneity of avant-garde director Richard Foreman.

It is an odd marriage: three distinct sensibilities that never cohere into a work of real dramatic power. Foreman is said to have been attracted to the project because of the contrast between Poe's ``hysterical frenzy'' and Glass's ``colder, more controlled music.'' These characterizations are true enough.

But Foreman's erotic playfulness is not the perfect lens through which to focus a story that builds to a hyperventilated pitch and a score that calculatingly buzzes along an undeviating trajectory. The directorial style that is so imaginatively right for Foreman's own quirky chamber theater works (including last year's comedic ``Film Is Evil: Radio Is Good,'' which explored visual imagery's impact on the world of sound) makes ``The Fall of the House of Usher'' into a creaky Fun-House of Usher.

(A more successful union has been the collaboration between the ART and Louisville's Kentucky Opera, who co-produced ``The Fall of the House of Usher'' which had its second showing in Kentucky earlier last month.)

Indeed, at their most disparate, the sensibilities shaping this production accentuate each other's weaknesses rather than strengths. The arpeggiated precision of Glass's score makes Foreman's untamed staging seem sloppy; the director's ad hoc wildness makes the composer's minimalism sound as relentless and uninspired as a whirring drill. Furthermore, Poe is ill served by both. His Gothic mysticism looks silly when presented with Foreman's self-conscious and determinedly avant-garde staging (strobe lights, spinning mirrors, and the like). Glass's often-wordless score, which should capture the story's unspoken horror, never achieves any psychological dimension beyond that of a mantra.

Too bad, because Poe's classic tale depends, for its implosive impact, on a conjured claustrophobia. Roderick Usher is slowly going mad inside his crumbling ancestral home (build of gravestones, it turns out), while his twin sister, Madeline, wastes away with an unnamed affliction. (The twins' malaise has been juiced up in this production to be the unmissable sin of incest.) In his grief and fear, Roderick has summoned his boyhood friend, the hapless and horrified William.

Not for Foreman any easy realism of design. The set is gigantic black cube, which, despite its towering airiness, becomes cluttered with the director's usual grab bag of props: on one side, a giant chiffonier topped by a pile of skulls, and on the other a model of the Usher abode; a couple of swinging black chandeliers; a crazy tilting black slab of a bed (upon which William tosses and turns); a crazier tilting dining table, set (with Velcro!) for four. There is even a peek-a-boo Frederick's-of-Hollywood bed, upon which the brother and sister's transgressions (PG, at worst) are mimed. And, oh yes, one mustn't forget that triptych of spinning strobe-lit mirrors that moves about the stage with as little reason as the giant painted panels slide up and down the walls.

The actors are just as fantastically costumed. William and Roderick lurch Golem-like about the stage wearing oddly padded shirts that exaggerate their shoulders and add Richard III-like humps to their backs. Madeline, who never speaks, wafts on and off wordlessly in whiteface and a tattered chiffon.

There are also the omnipresent butler and doctor - the latter dressed for the operating room in sunglasses and rubber apron.

Much of this precious staging is mildly amusing rather than horrifying. Except when it becomes boring (as in the second act, where Roderick and William have a lot of time to kill before Madeline bursts from the crypt) or unintentionally funny (as when librettist Yorink missteps by calling William's nerves ``shattered'' or telling the grief-stricken Roderick, ``We should get some air outside'').

Glass's score, had it any psychological life of its own, might have anchored the teetering production. But it is largely static, only occasionally leaping out of its background mode. In the rare moments when it does, it can be very effective.

For instance, Madeline enters with a showy flourish of timpani; a childhood memory scene is scored with a nice bit of glockenspiel and bassoon. But most of the time the score is like a frail electrical current - energy zapping weakly along a too-narrow band.

The opera, which has been double cast during its ART run, is well served by its principals, however. Steven Paul Aiken, a baritone, sings a robust William, although he seemed a tad too horrified from the onset in the performance I saw. Tenor William Hite performs Roderick's role with appropriate coiled-spring fervor. Suzan Hanson's soaring soprano well suits her wordless role as Madeline. Richard Pittman conducted the 12-piece pit ensemble.

``The Fall of the House of Usher'' continues at the ART through July 17.

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