The setup: Every three years, Arizona State University Tempe admits a cohort of Master of Fine Arts candidates in the allied emphases Theatre Performance (acting), Directing, and Performance Design (including components such as lighting, costume and makeup, and digital media). The gang spends an intense period of study and practice together and, as their final year approaches, forms a production troupe to develop new works. The cohort that will graduate in 2014 is called Punctum.
We get to enjoy the public-performance part of their labors, which, though it's the tip of an intense and arcane iceberg, can be compelling and delightful. Punctum devised its current show, The Fall of the House of Escher, with inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, mathematically illusive illustrator M. C. Escher, and some straight-up crazy elements of quantum mechanics.
The execution: Part of the concept of this production is that it's an experiment -- that the audience's presence affects the outcome, sort of like a live Choose Your Own Adventure, except that you're choosing the characters' adventure. With that in mind, there's no program (not the kind that gives people credit, anyway) and no curtain call -- you can check out the cast and the rest of the team here.
I may be mistaken, but it seemed obvious that the play would end the same way no matter what and we'd eventually see every scene that had been rehearsed. A sprite-like apparition played by Julie Rada occasionally appears and gives the crowd two choices. At the performance I attended, the audience members decided she was definitely asking more than one person and audibly picked both alternatives, though they usually lent more volume and energy to one. So, long story short, though we were supposed to be there more or less to break a spell, we were not infected with the urgency of our power.
Rada's demeanor is supremely creepy (though I'm sure it's a deliberate choice), if also adorable, so I applaud anyone who responded to her at all. Her first question is something like, "Shall we begin? Yes or no?" Please, someone, say "no" and just tell me what happens afterward. I'm sure they have a plan.
The designs and movement in the piece are beautifully stylized. If I think of it more as a sort of masque or dance performance than as a piece of theater, it's rather satisfying. There isn't a whole lot of character depiction evident in the acting (again, this is on purpose as far as I can tell), with the exception of Chelsea Pace, who's basically playing the narrator of Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher." (You don't need to read it first -- in fact, if you do, it might screw up your enjoyment of the show.)
Pace is irrepressible in general, from what I've seen of her, and she brings the appropriate spunk to a character who's supposed to be the only one not affected by the gloomy mansion of the title. Decked out in elegant men's attire of 1847 and a distinctive auburn wig, she isn't really playing a man. Even in Poe's original, Roderick and Madeline Usher's twinship is a little odd, and here, the replication of characters and their occasional cross-dressing makes a kind of symmetrical sense as well as helping to illustrate the ideas of potential universes and looping reality
The stage floor is painstakingly painted with one of those Escher designs in which you can't tell whether there are cubes are poking out toward you or empty cubic spaces receding away from you. It doesn't seem to figure in the production at all, providing merely an attractive surface to walk on. Much more effective are sliding mirrored panels that contribute to the story's mood of infinite space, obscured truth, and impenetrable mystery, as well as computerized projection and lighting effects that appear to transport the happenings entirely out of our dimension at times.
If Groundhog Day never ended -- if Bill Murray's character were aware of what was happening but had literally no power to break the cycle ever -- that would be the kind of nightmare in which the Eschers and their home are trapped, except that it's wretchedly painful as well as increasingly annoying and tedious for them. This one-act play has a bit of a hard time putting that feeling across, and its monochromatic visuals and stately decorum make it a little snoozy, but for the abrupt interpolation of a unisex version of "Annabel Lee" that left my date unable to stifle a laugh.
The verdict: "There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart -- an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime." Preach it, Edgar.
I've been completely blown away by enough ASU shows (including new and student-produced works) that I can't conclude that The Fall of the House of Escher meets the MainStage standard of quality, were I in charge of setting it. But I don't care for labels, anyway, and Escher is the product of protracted, dedicated work that is building these students into more and more accomplished artists. So I think you might like to experience it.
The Fall of the House of Escher continues through Sunday, October 6, at the Lyceum Theatre, 901 South Forest Mall on ASU's Tempe campus. For tickets, $8 to $16, click here or call 480-965-6447.