07 November 2007

Open Circle Theater: "The Dreams in the Witch House"

Every year Seattle's Open Circle Theater puts on an adaptation of Lovecraft, usually several pieces grouped together. This year's performance followed the same pattern, adapting four Lovecraft short stories into ~90 minutes of theater.

The works in question were "The Picture in the House," "Nyarlathotep," "The Cats of Ulthar," and "The Dreams in the Witch House." Lovecraft doesn't seem a natural to adapt to theater since some of the horrors he describes seem as if they would be indescribable even with CGI, but the limitations of the stage make for some interesting approaches.

Last year's adaptation involved interlinked stories, one of which ("Strange Magicks") was original. This one was structured differently, with Nyarlathotep and Cats of Ulthar nested in Picture, and Dreams as a separate piece.

"The Picture in the House" was a relatively faithful adaptation, with only a few minor changes. The unnamed narrator still seeks shelter in an aged structure to avoid a rainstorm while out visiting the Arkham countryside. However, the events take place in the modern day, so that the narrator speaks his observations into a voice recorder. (A clever device for allowing for narration.) Inside the house, he discovers a series of books and meets a strange old man who asks him to read from the book. The stories he reads are "Nyarlathotep" and "The Cats of Ulthar." The core effect of the story is kept, though the writers felt the need to make explicit what Lovecraft never really stated. (Understandable, since the slow accumulation of little details is a little more difficult in theater than in writing.)

"Nyarlathotep," on the other hand, required quite a bit of adaptation to bring to the stage. The original story is a rather surreal prose poem of a travelling showman who appears to bring the world to ruin. (The story very dreamlike and provides for a certain ambiguity as to whether the destruction is real or hallucinated.) The piece is presented through the eyes of two men, Robert Chambers and Ludwig (or is it Edward?) Prinn, who are investigating the travelling showman. Like "Strange Magicks" the action ends with Lovecraftian revelations in a darkened theater. That can be a hard thing to make convincing and not goofy, but John McKenna manages to deliver it with the right degree of dramatic flair.

"The Cats of Ulthar" is also a tricky story to adapt. Written by Lovecraft when he was most under the influence of Lord Dunsany, it's set in a mythical dreamland and told almost as a fable. As with Picture, the adaptation makes explicit something that Lovecraft only points at. (Though in such a way that there is only one obvious conclusion.) It ended up capturing some of the fable-like feeling of the original, though still seemed a bit shortened.

Of all four performances, "The Dreams of the Witch House" was probably the weakest. The source material certainly presents its own sets of challenges, but even taking that into account, a lot of material seems to have been cut out, in contrast to the other adaptations where material was added in to provide coherency. The creature effects on Brown Jenkin were pretty cool, though.

Overall a good show, though not quite as good as last years. They had changed venues to a smaller space, and I wonder if that did not affect the kind of show they could put on. The OCT web site states that they recently moved to a new location, so I hope the space next year lends itself better to interdimensional horrors.

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