Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lovecraft's Cthulhu (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

H.P.Lovecraft created what can be seen as modern horror, in which mere humans confront their total impotence and unimportance in the cosmic scale of things, a cosmos both unknowable and by our standards worse than psychopathic.

Lovecraft's Cthulhu marks Zombie Joe's premiere effort to bring something of Lovecraft to the stage. Others have done something similar such as the Visceral, or Chicago's Wildclaw.  To be fair I walked in to take my seat, feeling excitement.  I hoped to be surprised and delighted.

And I was!

Credit: Brandon Slezak
The play--done very much as an elaborate Reader's Theatre event--essentially turned out to be an adaptation of a seminal tale in Lovecraft's "mythos," the long short story "The Call of Cthulhu."  If all this is new, don't worry about pronouncing the title. The word is meant to be pronounced by a being with nothing at all like the mouth of a human being.

Writer/director Denise Devin took this story and made relatively few cuts, then set up a wonderful cast (August Browning, Brian Caelleigh, Ian Heath, Susan Holmstrom, Natasha Krause, Kevin Maphis, Madeleine Miller, Jonica Patella, Enrique Quintero, Elif Savas) to take turns reciting the text, coupled with movements and a few props to create a feeling very like telling a story around a campfire at midnight--only more.  Sometimes they re-enacted highlights of the story, or followed specific characters.

Credit: Brandon Slezak
Usually, when cast members talk directly to the audience, this proves problematical.  Usually.  Not this time.  Rather, the power of the story comes across as every single actor clearly tried to explain this horrible thing they--as surrogates/incarnations of the narrator--learned and hopes no one else ever does.  So why tell it?  Because they cannot remain silent.  They must speak aloud.

Must tell of the papers and clippings found in the old language professor's things after his slightly mysterious death.  Of the shocking reaction of lunatics and artists to something one particular week in one particular year.  How the clay sculptures fashioned by one particular artist indirectly led to a horrific story of a violent cult in New Orleans years earlier--a cult worshiping entities they call The Old Ones.

The Old Ones, creatures/beings/gods from beyond the stars, who came to this earth ages past and who now sleep, dreaming.  "Cthulhu" is their high priest, who shall when the stars are right once more, awake with all his wild, unknowable kind to let loose chaos and alien joys onto the world.

Credit: Brandon Slezak
Nor was this cult restricted to New Orleans.

In fact, a random chance leads the narrator to discover more, much more, about the fate of a schooner out of Australia, of whose crew only one survived a weird event in the middle of the Pacific Ocean--an event corresponding with that one week in one year the dead scholar had studied.

All this is a challenge to dramatize, since everything "happens" well in the past, with the narrator slowly realizing just what sort of world he lives in--and shudders at the revelation, knowing he will almost certainly soon die because the Cult must have noticed him by now.  Capturing that eerie sense of realization, of seeing oneself as tiny and unimportant, of knowing all human achievement is as nothing, doomed to eventual destruction at the whim of beings beyond comprehension--it makes for a challenge.  That challenge this director and ensemble meet.

Lovecraft's Cthulhu plays Fridays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until March 18, 2018 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood, CA 91601.

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