Saturday, February 07, 2009

On-Stage: The Wendigo

In recent years, vampires have been a flop on Broadway. Frankenstein’s Monster fared little better Off-Broadway. Perhaps those creations are simply too stage-worn at this point. That certainly is not the case with the Wendigo, the mythic monster in the woods in Algernon Blackwood’s classic supernatural short story. Adapted for the stage by Eric Sanders, the Vagabond Theatre Company’s production of The Wendigo officially opened Off-Broadway at the Medicine Show Theatre last night.

Nature is dangerous, perhaps even malevolent in Blackwood’s tale of an ill-fated hunting excursion. In the 1890’s, vast stretches of the Canadian woods remain virtually untouched by humankind. It ought to be the perfect environment for moose hunting, but for Simpson, a young divinity student, and his doctor uncle, game has been elusive. Perhaps out of frustration, tensions have been growing between their guides, the brash Hank Davis and his moody French Canadian friend, Joseph Defago. Hoping to improve their chances of bagging moose, Davis recommends they split up and head in different directions. In retrospect, this proves to be a mistake.

It would seem the Wendigo is indeed out there, stalking them, but the precise nature of the beast is wisely kept deliberately mysterious. At times, the Wendigo is described as a giant Sasquatch-like creature of supernatural proportions, whereas at other points it sounds more like a primal force—the very embodiment of nature, in all its wrath. It is a being that inspires not mere garden variety fear, but deep existential dread. Few can resist its siren call of the wild, but Defago’s superstitious and anti-social inclinations make him particularly susceptible.

Wendigo is an old-fashioned story staged in a very contemporary manner. The lighting, rear-projected images, and sparse but evocative set create a legitimately unsettling atmosphere. Against this backdrop, Matthew Hancock’s shrewd direction builds the tension organically through suggestion and the performances.

Nick Merritt is quite convincing as the neophyte outdoorsman, who also assumes the play’s expository duties as narrator. He is well paired with Kurt Uy, who effectively conveys Defago’s inner turmoil. Unfortunately, the second pairing of hunter and guide sometimes comes across a bit stagey. Still, Hancock keeps it all moving at a good pace, eliciting some very tense moments.

At about an hour and fifteen minutes in duration, Wendigo is certainly staged with economy. It brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s aesthetics of the short story, in which all elements should work in concert towards a single desired emotional response. Those who enjoy a good supernatural yarn, but prefer the suggestive to the graphic, will find it a cool little production. Now officially open, the entertaining Wendigo runs through February 28th, with a special Friday the 13th program, featuring staged post-performance readings by from Blackwood, Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft, three of the great English language writers of supernatural horror.