Kevin Sorbo & Edgar Allan Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher… A Review
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of my favorite authors and Kevin Sorbo is one of my favorite actors. Combining the two is a stroke of genius!
Macabre Mansion, a production company specializing in audio dramas, caught my attention when it announced plans to record one of Poe’s best-known short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with Sorbo as the Narrator. They upped the ante by donating a portion of the CD’s proceeds to Sorbo’s charity, A World Fit For Kids! (WFIT). Poe and Sorbo together, plus funding for WFIT… I knew I wanted it!
Poe’s classic 1839 tale documents Roderick Usher’s descent into madness following the death of his twin sister, Madeline, and belief that the house, used metaphorically to describe the Usher family as well as the physical building, is to blame. Its Gothic overtones propel readers into a stylistically desolate world, yet, Poe introduces a vagueness of time and place that creates a dream-like quality.
Its first-person narrative begins with a desperate letter from Roderick to his unnamed childhood friend begging for an audience at the ancient Usher estate and ends with the grand mansion’s fiery destruction. Poe weaves a nightmarish story using colorful descriptions of physical surroundings in a funeral dirge meter that unlocks the primordial fear of death inherent in us all.
Macabre Mansion’s excellent adaptation, written, directed and produced by Kevin Herren, combines 19th century theatrical melodrama with 1940s radio narrative and adds enough vernacular to captivate audiences of all ages. It is lyrical, descriptive and mesmerizing, and brilliantly pays homage to Poe’s massive talent. The approximately 30-minute recording offers excitement and intrigue via its well-structured plot, realistic sound effects by David Scharf and subtle music by Kevin Macleod.
The cast includes Sorbo (Narrator), Jim O’Rear (Roderick Usher), Bonita Friedericy (Madeline Usher) and John Billingsly (Doctor Locke). Together they are an amazing ensemble that brings Poe’s unforgettable characters to life.
The story opens as the Narrator receives a letter from his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, requesting his presence at the grand Usher estate due to the latter’s failing health. He embarks on his journey, but experiences trepidation as he approaches the eerie Gothic mansion.
Lady Madeline Usher greets him upon his arrival, but Dr. Locke intercedes, lecturing the woman that she is too ill to be out of bed and must return to her room. He escorts the friend to Roderick’s room where the heir to the Usher estate rests in shadows, but becomes excited by his friend’s appearance. Dr. Locke leaves them, and Roderick proceeds to explain his urgent message’s meaning and the Usher family’s plight that left its two remaining members with an unknown, but fatal malady.
Later Dr. Locke informs Roderick that Madeline “breathes no more,” which exacerbates her brother’s belief that mysterious forces haunt him and killed his sister. Roderick and the Narrator retrieve her body from its grave and place it in the mansion’s bowels where Roderick observes how life-like she looks.
On the 7th or 8th night of the Narrator’s stay he tells of his increasing terror and unwillingness to remain alone in his room. Roderick joins him and they pass the horrible night together with the Narrator reading aloud from the book, the Mad Trist by Sir Launcelot Canning. However, while reading, the Narrator becomes unnerved by various inexplicable sounds. What ensues is the epitome of Poe’s affectation with horror and death.
Sorbo’s narration draws listeners into the story casually, yet dramatically. He spins the yarn as if he’d experienced it, recounting events with such realism and earnestness that he seemingly becomes the author, Poe himself. He sets the story’s mood and tone throughout, skillfully maintaining its enthralling pace.
Sorbo presents a character within a character as he assumes the role of Roderick’s friend while acting as the Narrator, changing parts with ease. As the Narrator he wields his velvet voice like a weapon – decisive and commanding. When placed in the story as Roderick’s friend he becomes a different person, genuine and passionate, portraying the character’s mounting fear that intensifies during his reading of the Mad Trist.
This is my favorite part of the piece. Sorbo’s mounting fear is the complete antithesis of his typical “tough guy” roles. And he is excellent! He surprises with hesitation, stuttering, rapid speech, and increasing agitation that culminate in a “What the hell was that?” type of panic. He then returns to the staid Narrator, relating subsequent events more like an observer than a participant, and concludes the tale as it began in true Gothic style.
O’Rear is perfectly maniacal as Roderick Usher, lending his many talents to this part. At the story’s beginning he is almost child-like, welcoming his friend to his home, explaining his plight, and expressing relief that his childhood companion arrived so that they can relive their memories. He then exudes madness that starts with a slight laugh, crescendos to accusations, then decrescendos to resignation like a symphony of emotions.
Sorbo and O’Rear work well together, complementing each other vocally and with acting styles. Where Sorbo is calm and rational, O’Rear is expressive and exaggerated. Midway, they exchange approaches and Sorbo is believably frightened while O’Rear is unperturbed as if he’d expected these terrors all along.
What terrors, you ask? I won’t tell you more… You need to buy the CD!
But, I tell you this… I frequently listen to “The Fall of the House of Usher” and hear something new each time. Truly, I never want it to end!
See Macabre Mansion’s website to purchase the CD or download it digitally:
(Photos courtesy of Macabre Mansion; Collage by Jan)