The 2nd H.P. Lovecraft Festival
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
July 7, 2011
Radiotheatre's 2nd H.P. Lovecraft Festival confines itself to only a handful of elements: a handmade sign with the company's name, a picture of Lovecraft upstage, some minimal backlights, a fog machine, and two actors enacting two of Lovecraft's best-known stories accompanied by a meticulous sound design. No doubt the simplicity is part of an attempt to create radio theatre—in which the ambience of voice and sound are the primary storytelling tools—but it also does a fine job of theatrically engendering the visceral dread and lurking paranoia that define Lovecraft's work.
It makes sense, because the inimitable brilliance of Lovecraft's stories is mainly a product of the atmosphere. His plots can be clunky, the dialogue often over-articulated, the characters thin … but then again, he doesn't write to those ends. The best stories are usually reported—a narrator recounting documents he found about a past oddity, or a potential madman's confession—so that the story movement isn't about dramatic stakes but about the controlled revelation of progressively more grotesque and terrifying layers.
Radiotheatre's adaptations are obviously labors of love—and a quick glance over the company's credits illustrates head creator Dan Bianchi's indebtedness to traditional pulp genres. For this second installment of the festival, he chooses two stories, the stronger of which is "The Call of Cthulhu" (summary here), one of Lovecraft's signature and best tales. It's one of the "reported" stories, and Bianchi tautly condenses it to two scenes that accomplish the goal of peeling back the story's layers to appropriately relate the horrific possibility at its heart. The actors speak quietly into microphones, and the hesitant urgency of Frank Zilinyi and creepy insistence of Eric Whitten sufficiently invoke a sense of horror even before the story veers in that direction. There are no easy stabs at comic relief and no attempts to imbue too much psychological detail into the characters, both admirable and effective decisions that pay off in a genuinely spooky rendition of the tale.
The second piece fares less well towards such consistent ambience, but to a large extent that's a product of the source material. "Herbert West, Reanimator" (summary here) was written on spec before many of Lovecraft's great works. It veers wildly into melodramatic territory (a risk endemic to his heavy style), not helped by having been written in installments. As with the first piece, Bianchi's adaptation is impressively faithful, but the fidelity emphasizes the story's sillier qualities, especially when juxtaposed with Radiotheatre's controlled theatrical atmosphere. Likewise, the script more or less maintains the serialized episodic nature, which works against maintaining a consistent creepiness.
But overall, Bianchi does a fine job of spooking up the joint. Fans of Lovecraft's work might find it all a bit too direct—sometimes the sound cues kick in too quickly, suggesting a campier purpose than the show supports, and there's too little silence between the actors, time for the dread to seep in slowly—but those fans will also find much to love in these well-constructed adaptations. For everyone else, if you're not into Lovecraft, then this is a perfect time to remedy that.