Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A review of Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite

This is a little late, as I'm still in Los Angeles, running around. But here's a review of a play I saw.

Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite; adapted and directed by Dan Spurgeon; performed by the Visceral Company at the Lex Theatre

Lovecraft may not be the obvious choice for theatrical adaptation, with his SAT-prepped narrators and the indescribable weirdness they face (or run gibbering from before being subsiding into restful oblivion). How can you represent cyclopean buildings and squamous horrors on the stage?

The answer, of course, is: with puppets or shadow projections. If it's weird, keep it weird. And rather than run from those wordy, occasionally logorrheic narrators, you could--as Dan Spurgeon does--highlight them by having them tell us the stories directly. As the playbill essay notes, though Lovecraft's narrators generally seem to be men, some of these adaptations are narrated by women; and I generally agree that this change does bring some interesting depth or at least a new slant to these stories.

Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite features several such full stories, with some interstitial pieces that either help the transitions or merely give the actors time to change costumes, depending on your tastes. It doesn't help that these interstitials are too quick to let their weirdness build into something dreadful; and that the recitation seems somewhat garbled.

In order, the scenes are

1) "Prologue: Dreams": A dapper, self-assured fellow frames the scenes to come with some scattered Lovecraft quotes--a little "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (mankind's oldest emotion is fear), a little "From Beyond" (we'll see what dogs and cats are always going on about), a little "Nietzcheism and Realism" (it would be better not to exist at all). Good mood setting, and probably better if you're not playing "catch the Lovecraft quote."

2) "The Statement of Randolph Carter": Nervous Randolph Carter tells the jury--us--what really happened the night that Harley Warren disappeared. At some point, Harley shows up on the stage and the recital turns into a reenactment. It's fairly faithful to the story, as near as I remember it: they go to a graveyard in a swamp, uncover stairs down, Harley uses a telephone on a long wire, and then tells Randolph to run. As the first full story, "Randolph Carter" nicely shows us the general format--a little narration, a little dramatization--and the nonchalant appearance of Harley is suitably creepy: already looking half-dead, he walks on stage while Randolph is telling the story and just stands there until the reenactment starts, when he pulls two shovels off one wall of the stage. That was an especially nice touch, I thought, since that wall featured a bunch of evocative tools--axe (I think), shovels, saws. And after this, I could never be sure what was just decoration and what would play a part in the scenes.

3) Interstitial: a short poem about a cat, with a puppet cat walking across the stage. Walking, gliding, whatever.

4) "The Cats of Ulthar": Although (3) wasn't very engaging, it did serve pretty well as a transition into this piece, which was all done with puppets and costumes. The people of Ulthar are all waist-high puppets with slightly grotesque papier-mache faces. The "acting" of the puppets may be a little broad, like a pantomime show, but was pretty effective all the same; extra points for giving the gory-silly story some humor through these puppets. The narration was all done from the side, where the actress sat in a sort of pseudo-Egyptian glory. (Did she actually have her face painted with the Eye of Horus or was that just my imagination?) That design, I could take or leave, though the narration did add to the pantomime quality. And when the grand caravan of strange people came, it was authentically odd to see full-sized, masked figures among the tiny, grotesque Ultharites. The back wall of the stage, which was the projection screen, first showed the town--with the cat-killing couple's house off to the side; and then, during the rite, showed a projection of a house surrounded by cats turning around it.

5) Interstitial: a puppet head pops out of a box on the side of the stage and tells us about a tower, which is projected on the back wall.

6) "The Outsider": was cancelled due to actor injury.

7) Interstitial: with a blacklight on, various glowing bits came together to form a house. Was it a witch house? I couldn't say for sure.

8) "The Picture in the House": A bicycling genealogist takes shelter from a storm in a seemingly-abandoned house, only to discover that the ancient and isolated inhabitant obsesses over a book featuring cannibals. I honestly can't remember this story; and the idea of a cannibal hick in a cabin in the woods may not surprise anyone today. But the execution was well done. The authentic frontier gibberish of the Yankee hick was very off-putting, though largely because he kept going on about how that picture of cannibalism gave him queer thoughts. The lighting for this story was very dark, except when the lightning effect played or the book's cannibal-shop image played on the back wall. As with many other full pieces, the narrator here addressed us directly, while the other character didn't, which added an extra tension here: "Stop telling us about your bicycle," I wanted to yell, "there's a guy with an axe behind you!"

9) Interstitial: something about Fungi from Yuggoth, with green, plant-like, pincer-tipped arms reaching in from off-stage to menace a guy.

10) "Cool Air": One of the pieces where the narrator's gender gets flipped, but otherwise keeping close to the story (as I remember it). A woman takes a room at a boarding house, befriends the doctor above her, who keeps his room surprisingly cool, and who mentions something about a terrible brush with death that he had. Surprise! He already died years ago and when his cooling apparatus fails, he deliquesces. Like many earlier pieces, the narrator addresses the audience directly; but what really set this piece apart was that the doctor never appears directly on the stage. Instead, he appears only as a shadow projected on the back wall and never talks out loud, with his dialogue explained in brief through the narrator. Not only does this help to speed up the story by summarizing, it keeps the literally shadowy doctor at one remove from us and from the other people in the scene (narrator, landlady, workmen). I've never found this story particularly scary, or even really creepy, and instead, this version seemed more sad than anything else.

11?) Interstitial: There was something about inner Egypt. My question mark here comes from the fact that this might really have been part of the next scene.

12) "Nyartlathotep": Seemingly based on the original prose poem, this piece starts with a narrator going with a crowd to see a magic show presented by the titular character. Here, Nyartlathotep, the Egyptian-looking sorcerer-god, is a pretty stiff shadow puppet projected on the back wall, and his magic is just a few lights on a dark stage. But when the narrator objects and Nyartlathotep drives the crowd (the rest of the cast) into the street, the scene becomes more interesting: each character has a flashlight and soon they are all in unison jumping at strange sounds and turning their flashlights first left, now right. Then they fall under a magical compulsion that sees them marching out into alien landscapes, until our narrator is left alone again, in a suddenly and totally black stage.

13) "Epilogue: The Thing in the Moonlight": The dapper man from the prologue returns, only this time he introduces himself as Howard Phillips and is almost comically nervous. And he has a lot to be nervous about since he's stuck in an endless nightmare that he can't wake up from, haunted by various shapes. This piece seems to owe as much to Lovecraft's letter (where he recounts a dream) as to the later story written by J. Chapman Miske, which seems like an odd choice. But it does give the actors a second chance to appear as their most interesting characters of the night--the cannibal hick, the Egyptian-style narrator of "Cats," the nervous narrator of "Cool Air," etc. all appear as the shapes that haunt the narrator.

Overall, Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite isn't completely successful and makes some odd choices that lead it into unforced errors--mostly around those interstitial pieces; but the longer stories are generally strong, featuring direct acting and a touch of weirdness and dread through the simple special effects of light and shadow.

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