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    Kurt Uy, Graham Outerbridge, Nick Merritt, and Erik Gratton in The Wendigo
    Kurt Uy, Graham Outerbridge, Nick Merritt, and Erik Gratton

    Bump in the Night

    Playwright Eric Sanders and Director Matthew Hancock attempt to revive "real horror" with their adaptation of Algernon Blackwood's classic story "The Wendigo."


    With "The Wendigo," it is clear that playwright Eric Sanders, director Matthew Hancock, and their design team are determined to remind us of what scary stories can be and do. The rise of torture porn and Hot Topic pseudo-goths has given a generation of American popular culture consumers the impression that moody Mormon vampires and dismembered tourists are the height of Gothic storytelling and spine-chilling horror, respectively. "The Wendigo," on the other hand, is adapted from a 1910 story about a hunting party who venture too far into the wrong part of the woods and come face-to-face with a creature out of Algonquin myth. It is a meditative story about wanderlust, melancholy, and the arrogance of man in the face of nature's mysteries.

    Written by: Eric Sanders.
    Produced by: Sarah Ann Masse, for Vagabond Theatre Ensemble.
    Based on The Wendigo by: Algernon Blackwood.
    Cast: Erik Gratton, Nick Merritt, Graham Outerbridge, Kurt Uy.
    Sound design by: M. L. Dogg.
    Set design by: Nicolas Vaughan.
    Costumes by: Candice Thompson.
    Lighting design by: Brian Tovar.
    Production stage manager: Michelle Kelleher.
    Illustration / Projection Design by: Gino Barzizza.

    Related links: Official site
    Medicine Show Theatre
    549 West 52nd 3rd floor
    Previews start: Feb. 5, 2009
    Feb. 6-28, 2009

    The story's prolific author, Algernon Blackwood, was praised by HP Lovecraft as a "modern master" of the genre. Blackwood's work is very much of its time, and it is no longer as widely read as stories by Lovecraft and Poe. Nevertheless, his prolific output and mastery of haunting, pre-ironic, atmosphere rank him among our most memorable, if not always the most remembered, writers of horror fiction.

    Needless to say, adapting the century-old story for the contemporary stage presents some obstacles. Blackwood's text includes relatively little dialogue and the narrator is an unidentified non-character who writes in the third person. The story is also littered with the kinds of language and devices that have taken a beating in the latter twentieth century from those of us who have come to view ethnic and racial essentialism as destructive rather than respectful, who reject the "noble savage" as a shameful literary legacy reflecting an even more shameful historical legacy. Finally, as I've already suggested, "The Wendigo" does not employ gore, sex, or irony for its thrills. Blackwood achieves his chills by relying on atmosphere, on suggestion, and on the ability of his readers to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations in ways that he hopes will outstrip anything an author could ever provide for them. As such much of the action is suggested rather than explicated, told rather than shown. For reasons ranging from pragmatic to political, then, this is not an easy tale to render theatrically.

    Nick Merritt and Kurt Uy in The Wendigo  
    Nick Merritt and Kurt Uy
    Sanders has provided an admirably straightforward approach that preserves the tone of his source material while solving many, if not all, of these problems. The result is an earnest, genuinely spooky production that is unlikely to keep the audience from sleeping at night but may very well have them shifting uncomfortably in their seats and looking forward to a post-show drink.

    The star of the show is unquestionably its production design. Gino Barzizza's illustrations and projections flow into one another and work with Nicholas Vaughan's sets to create the impression of a possibly haunted woods without attempting an unwieldy realism that would have bogged down the story and cluttered the small stage of the Medicine Show Theater. M.L. Dogg's elaborate sound design layers the ambiance of the forest with Pro Tools-fueled horror movie scoring to envelop the audience in the atmosphere of the show. Whenever amplified underscoring and sound effects are juxtaposed with unmicrophoned voices the effect is a little jarring, but it didn't take long to adjust to and accept this discrepancy and get caught up in the spooky fun of Dogg's soundscape. Director Matthew Hancock balances all of these elements, along with an uneven cast, to make the whole production feel part of an aesthetic whole.

    The acting is generally competent but also largely unremarkable. Kurt Uy gives the evening's most memorable performance as Défago, a "Canuck" whose melancholy and affinity for the forest make him an easy mark for the wendigo. Graham Outerbridge gamely delivers an earthy Hank, a hunting guide nervous that he won't get paid if he doesn't find some moose for his clients soon. Erik Gratton gives a pompous, affected performance as Doc, who commissioned the hunting party. The affectations may very well be a character choice, or they may be the bad habits of an actor who has performed in one too many Renaissance festivals. Nick Merritt delivers an earnest, workmanlike rendition of Doc's nephew, Simpson. Merritt is also given the daunting challenge of narrating the many off-stage events.

      Graham Outerbridge, Kurt Uy, and Erik Gratton in The Wendigo
      Graham Outerbridge, Kurt Uy, and Erik Gratton
    Which brings us back to the adaptation. In some ways, Sanders may be almost too respectful towards his material. While he changes Blackwood's third-person prose to first-person narration, the words still sound written, rather than spoken. Nothing in Hancock's staging or Merritt's performance indicates that we are hearing entries from Simpson's journal or correspondence, but it is also not clear who he is talking to or why he is speaking so differently in his telling of the story than he does in scenes with dialogue. Changes that Sanders did make are mostly savvy ones, though there are a couple of odd missteps as well. In Blackwood's story, there is a minor character named Punk, an indigenous American whose depiction is problematic in many ways, and who adds little to the story. It makes sense that Sanders cut the character from the script, but his decision to combine Punk with Défago by making the latter "half-Indian, half-French Canuck" feels forced, and seems to have been done primarily to preserve a line or two of Blackwood's dialogue. (Indeed, when I first saw the show, I missed the line about Défago's mixed heritage, and was confused when another character referenced his "red skin.")

    While "The Wendigo" may not be quite what Sanders had hoped (he has frequently asserted his desire to "bring some real horror back to theater"), it is an engaging, enjoyably spooky exercise in adaptation that is well worth the $10 it will cost you for an hour of entertainment. Whatever its shortcomings, I'll happily take this show over the excesses and failures of "Saw" and "Twilight" any day.

    FEBRUARY 17, 2009

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