Sunday, October 5, 2014

Call of Cthulhu (review)

Note: Call of Cthulhu has been extended until December 7
Spoilers ahoy!

Let me begin by noting I'm very familiar with the works of H.P.Lovecraft including his seminal work The Call of Cthulhu. I've seen and heard it dramatized as well as reading it many a time. So although remaining a fan of actor Frank Blocker as well as of the Visceral Company in Hollywood, I didn't really expect any surprises. Just a very good one man show based on a story I know and enjoy.

But I got more!

For one thing, Blocker shows off his skill at portraying vivid and different characters at the drop of hat. His rapid transformations, from nervous artist to hard-nosed Louisiana detective to elderly explorer and Norwegian sailor, frankly demonstrate enough talent to make the price of a ticket worthwhile (at least if you're enough of a theatre geek as yours' truly). About those characters, allow me to point out each has a complete life. They aren't a set of accents and body languages merely but entire personalities with a their own world views and goals. No small feat!  As the narrator, of course, all that is at its most subtle because he has the most time. This also acts as an extremely effective red herring...

I also want to praise how the play delves beyond the surface of what we might expect. At the same time, despite the disclaimer above, revealing spoilers isn't what I intend. So let me just say this adaptation remains very true to Lovecraft's spirit, if not always to his precise words or plot. If you look at the poster as well as the credits in the programs you'll see Dan Spurgeon (co-founder of the Visceral) as having developed and directed the show. In doing so he went beyond the simple idea of having an actor just read aloud the story. No, what this ended up becoming proved far more theatrical than literary, and (true to the company's name) visceral in terms of the actual story. To give a single clue about the ways he accomplished this, let me say one word. Puppets.

The Call of Cthulhu makes for an unusual mystery story, because while crimes have been committed and our narrator to some degree manages to solve the identity of who and why, that is not the mystery which remains at the story's heart. Rather, it consists of an existential odyssey. A man explains to us how he got into archeology, via the enchanting tales told by a distinguished uncle in the field. Upon that uncle's death, he goes through the old man's papers and discovers clues of...something. What precisely? A hidden religion? Secret society? Maybe a horrible truth lying behind both? Why, after all, would cults follow the same rites and seemingly worship the same grotesque deity thousands of miles apart? Even to the point of having the same idols, and muttering the same words (if they be words) in something resembling no human tongue? Who or what is/was this...entity/demon/god/alien...called Cthulhu? How did people come to believe in such a thing?

Lovecraft was himself an atheist, and that likely helps account for his coming to invent much of what we might as well call "modern" horror. Before him, before Cthulhu and the stories set in his cosmos, evil's target and goal was the moral corruption of human souls. Or so tales like Dracula or The Picture of Dorian Gray would have us believe. At worst, we might be their physical prey, or perhaps in stories like The Turn of the Screw maybe a non-existent symptom of mental illness. Maybe. But Lovecraft grew  up in an age where we'd begun to get some idea as to the titanic size of the universe in which we inhabit. Cthulhu and his kind, the Old Ones, barely notice humankind even exists. We are less than ants, less important than harmless germs, to Them. We are, in the words of Douglas Adams, "an invisible speck on an invisible speck."

We are nothing. And shall be treated accordingly. Realizing that is the horror our narrator confronts--and with which he must find some way to cope.

Making that narrative fresh, as this production manages to do, also brings that horror much closer to home. I laughed at the last moments of this production--not from a gag or witticism, but from choosing between that or letting the horror overwhelm. There's a joke, but the joke is on me. And you. On all of us.

I don't want to give too much away, but it bears repeating I was surprised. As well as thrilled. Once again I got a compelling show from the Visceral, and from Mr. Blocker and Mr. Spurgeon, and recommend their show as a very tasty Halloween treat (and trick).

H.P.Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu plays at the Lex Theatre (6760 Lexington Blvd, near Highland, just off Theatre Row) Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until December 7, 2014. Tickets are $20 each.

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