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Salt Lake City Weekly An Ailing, Ancient House

By Scott C. Morgan

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  They say that a miss is as good as a mile. With Plan-B Theater Company's An Ancient House, the saying unfortunately holds true.

Known for producing innovative and daring theater on a shoestring budget, Plan-B Theater Company has utilized a variety of theatrical techniques to tackle topics ranging from the world's creationist myths (Beginnings) to the controversy over gay clubs in Utah's schools (The Alienation Effekt).

So, it's slightly disappointing to watch Plan-B's mildly-entertaining variation on Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, especially when it pales in comparison with Plan-B's past efforts. While there are interesting things still to be found in An Ancient House, the play's overall packaging lacks the usual freshness associated with Plan-B productions.

One problem with An Ancient House stems from its script, by local playwright Nathan H. Briggs. Although An Ancient House is not a direct translation of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, as Plan-B's publicity leads many to believe, it still contains problems that come with adapting literary works to the stage.

Written with first-person narration and lots of descriptive imagery, Poe's Fall of the House of Usher doesn't really lend itself to the dialogue-driven stage. Wisely avoiding a direct translation, Briggs uses the basic plot structure of House of Usher as a departure point to explore the impact of a writer's work and how it can affect other people.

In An Ancient House, Briggs places Poe in the role of the story's narrator who pays a visit to the decaying house of Usher. There, Poe meets the ailing brother-and-sister twins Roderick and Madeline Usher, who turn out to be obsessive fans of Poe and his writing. As Poe becomes more aware of the Ushers strange relationship, he is forced to face the dire implications of how others can interpret his work.

This exploration of dangerous interpretations of a writer's work is not unlike themes found in Stephen King's Misery and Steven Soderbergh's film Kafka, which both show the horrifying effects of obsessed fans who try to turn fictional works into reality. But in An Ancient House, Briggs has his characters dwelling far too long on quoting from Poe's works, instead of moving the plot along when it desperately needs it.

Dance macabre: John Woodhouse (foreground) and Natalie Anderson star in An Ancient House.

Interesting on their own terms, these Poe exerpts do not turn out to be very theatrical, especially when they require an attentive reader's imagination to flesh out the ideas and imagery found within them. With these quotations taking up the bulk of the play, the evening trudges along at a laborious pace.

Another problem with An Ancient House comes from Tracey Micheal Hall's uneven direction of the production. Parts of the play are staged like bad interpretive dance blended with reader's theater (the bewildering opening scene of the Ushers writhing and reciting on the floor), while the actors frequently are not believable when delivering their dialogue and Poe quotations. It seems that Hall wanted to create an alternative theatrical experience, but her efforts do not show a consistent theme or concept to guide the production along.

An Ancient House's trio of actors, Natalie Anderson, John Woodhouse and Zeke Totland, bravely plow through the production, even though their best efforts make very little impact on improving the material.

Plan-B Theater Company director Tracey Hall (left) with artistic director Cheryl Cluff.
With so many quotations and alienating staging decisions, the makeshift aspects of An Ancient House's design elements become glaringly apparent when they should not be. While all of Plan-B's productions are typically low-tech, their compelling staging and performances usually make up for the lack of elaborate scenery or costumes. This is not the case with An Ancient House, where the respectable small-budget work of the show's designers looks unflattering, especially coupled with the rest of the production.

Known in the past for melding unique works to site-specific locations, Plan-B has been able to make unconventional theater spaces work to their benefit. Plan-B's original choice of the intimate Victorian Aardvark's Cabaret would have been perfect for An Ancient House, but its closure forced Plan-B to move uncomfortably into the Bibliotect bookstore. Even though the Bibliotect's space is small, it still feels too expansive for this intimate tale of horror.

With An Ancient House, it seems that Plan-B aimed at creating a post-modernistic homage to Edgar Allan Poe to go along with the Halloween season. To some degree, Plan-B succeeds on both counts, offering something different than the usually conservative Salt Lake theater scene.

Plan-B Theater Company's production of An Ancient House based upon Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher plays until Nov. 8 at the Bibliotect bookstore, located at 235 S. 400 West. Call 487-8291 for ticket and performance information.


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