Stage adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu”

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The following review is written by Denise Dumars.

From now through Nov. 9th, The Visceral Company is presenting a new stage adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” at The Lex Theatre in Hollywood. My philosophy on adaptations is that a good adaptation stays faithful to the original; a great adaptation improves on it. Considering that eldritch philosophical stance as my rubric, The Visceral Company’s adaptation rates as great in your humble reviewer’s opinion.

Presented as a one-man show with Frank Blocker (Beggar’s Opera, Fall of the House of Usher) performing all the characters—including a more fleshed-out characterization of Wilcox, the tale’s artist—the adaptation builds suspense at just the right pace and keeps the audience enthralled, or perhaps as thralls. That’s a good thing, as the play is 75 minutes long with no intermission, and no one is seated after the show begins. After all, would YOU dare to come to a Cthulhu ritual late? I think not!

Blocker adapted the story along with award-winning director Dan Spurgeon. Choosing to use a single set with shadowplay and lighting utilized as scene changes, Johnny Burton and his puppet crew do just enough to tantalize the audience with glimpses of the beyond to suggest the horror that comes with such “unspeakable” acts as the Cthulhu cultists get up to.

One thing that really worked for me was the subtle repetition of the fact that the strange events are unfolding every twenty years…when the stars are right, of course. And the audience gets the sense, very clearly, that when you look into the abyss, it is Cthulhu looking back at you.

What I like most about the adaptation was Blocker’s ability to flesh out the characters. Legrasse, the New Orleans detective, has an authentic Louisiana vibe and accent; Castro is suitably frothing-at-the-mouth obsessed, and best of all, Johansen’s tale of encountering and getting into a fender-bender with Cthulhu works so much better when told with verve by Blocker. The epistolary nature of the tale makes the changes in character easy in this one-man wonder, a point which speaks to the strength of the adaptation of what is probably HPL’s best-known story. I was even buying into Blocker’s description of the non-Euclidian geometrics of the risen R’lyeh; so much so that I got lost in Beverly Hills on the way home. I guess I needed to chant “Cthulhu fhtagn!” a bit more.

The stage is 1920’s-friendly, with appropriate files, boxes, and other accoutrements of an archaeologist’s office. The tale’s main thread works better seen than read, I feel, when Angell’s former protégé and grand-nephew first doubts, then wonders, then decides to cash in on his mentor’s discoveries…hey, tenure is hard to get these days, so believe me, I understand, even when fear and obsession overwhelm his good sense.

Blocker skirts the edge of pastiche and affords subtle humor to the tale while at the same time taking the threat of this ancient and venerable menace quite seriously. I mean, seriously, a cult known to both Inuits and Cajuns? One that makes the Vodou community run back to the Quarter with the tourists? Now my Cajun relatives would tell you that hoo, boy, that’s a threat alrighty, yeah, me. So don’t expect a tongue-in-cheek rendition; this performance is suspenseful horror, respectful of the tradition, not mocking.

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The statuette of Cthulhu is well-conceived and gives the impression of both primitive art and true rendering. But ah, more glimpses of He-who-is-dead-yet-dreaming are to come. A teeny bit of “The Hound” is thrown into the story for good measure, and the action is book-ended by, well, let’s just say that the magic circle in the center of the stage ringed by Enochian glyphs is there for a reason.

Highly recommended for Lovecraft fans, of course, but also for those horror fans who may not know the story. The Visceral Company brings clarity and a slightly more modern sensibility to the tale that today’s audiences should expect, and Frank Blocker and crew are to be commended for their respect for and insightful adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu.”

Our continuing H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and other local productions based on the work of HPL show that even here in ordinarily clueless L.A. respect for the Old Gentleman is alive and well. The Visceral Company is a theater troupe specializing in horror, science fiction, and mystery that actually understands and respects the genres. I’ll be eagerly waiting until the stars are right again to see what project they come up with next.

The Visceral Company presents H.P. LOVECRAFT’S “THE CALL OF CTHULHU” at The Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood, CA 90038: Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm, Sunday matinees at 3 pm through November 9, 2014. Parental guidance recommended for young children. I’d say that teens, tweens, and more mature Lovecraftians (Elder gods welcome) would be the best bet for an appreciative audience.

Tickets are $20; click here to order online or for more information.

Denise Dumars is a writer and critic from Manhattan Beach, California. When the stars are right, she can see the Hollywood Sign from her balcony.  Visit her website at www.denisedumars.com .

2 responses to “Stage adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu”

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