Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Wendigo

Eric Sander's adaptation of Algernon Blackwood's The Wendigo, a spooky short story from 1910, starts with a killer line: "Our hunting party brought back no moose that year." It's a far cry better than Blackwood's clunkier version, and a hint of just how streamlined the Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's production is going to be (a little too slim, at only forty-five minutes). Matthew Hancock's direction helps to smooth things over, too: his actors have accents, but they don't exaggerate them. (Comedy is not the intended effect of this piece.)

In fact, the cast is generally terrific, with Nick Merritt smoothly transitioning from the task of "ominous narrator" to that of "excited novice hunter" and Kurt Uy's Defago slipping from a confident if somewhat brusque guide to that of a terrified, superstitious drunk. As Hank, Graham Outerbridge has the gruff behavior of a mercenary leader down cold, and Erik Gratton, with his deep radio voice, uses perfect enunciation to emphasize Doc's rationality.

However, despite Brian Tovar's excellent lighting (pinpoints piercing the blackness), the strict minimalism of Nicholas Vaughan's set (black poles hang like dead trees) and Gino Barzizza's static, projected backdrops prevent the show from capturing anything atmospheric. Candice Thompson nails the period costumes, but she's left threadbare conjuring up a wendigo. Only M. L. Dogg's calm, constant, cricketing sound design remains in the moment, and even that is undercut by the occasional use of generic thriller music.

That the play ends up looking a bit like The Blair Wendigo Project isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the production is constantly elevated by the careful culling of Blackwood's original descriptions. The smoke-lit darkness may not be terrifying, but it is certainly engaging, particularly when Hancock grounds the text in action--the ominous sound of Defargo's whetstone would make a Foley artist proud. If you ever see a wendigo, run; until then, you might as well walk to see The Wendigo.

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