I was afraid of The Wendigo before I even got into the theatre. But not for the reasons you might think. Not because I was about to see a tale of horror, or because I’d done some research on it and the Algernon Blackwood story (upon which it was based) left me spooked. Not because I was coming off a cold and had that terrible oh-damn-what-if-I-start-coughing-during-a-suspenseful-part dread (was some actor going to break character and chew my butt out Christian Bale style ?) No – I was afraid that my delightful chat with playwright Eric Sanders a few weeks ago would some how predispose me to liking this play and not judging it critically. Well, I didn’t have to worry because that didn’t happen.
This play was amazing all on its own with or without my introduction to it via an interview with Eric Sanders. In fact, I got pulled in to this play so quickly that I pretty much forgot everything I’d been preparing myself for and just let the sights, sounds and (was I imagining it?) smells take me to that horrifying place that was created.
The Wendigo is a true ensemble piece – beginning with Algernon Blackwood’s stunning tale of horror written in 1910, continuing on with Eric Sander’s compelling adaptation; furthered by M.L. Dogg’s hair-raising sound design, heightened by the almost-too-effective lighting design by Brian Tovar and capped off by the intense cast: Erik Gratton as Doc, Nick Merritt as Simpson, Graham Outerbridge as Hank and Kurt Uy as DeFago.
We’re used to getting our genres in standardized media – horror comes to us on paper or celluloid (Oh, how quaint. Digital, then). But give it to us in a manner that we’re not familiar with and we’re puzzled. What am I supposed to do with this? I supposed it’s the tinge of confusion that the early settlers must have felt when they first saw butter magically removed from the churn and now confronting them from a shelf in the General Store on The Prarie (Now Laura, you put that butter right back next to the tucking combs before I tell Pa you were aiming to be fancy).
And so, similarly, we are used to having our horror doled out to us not only in an expected medium but in a specific atmosphere as well: on the big screen in a movie theatre, or secondarily on the smaller screen via Netflix. Regardless, we’re in charge of the degrees of separation and the ambiance – screen containing reality in which monsters (or knife-wielding maniacs, or blood covered prom qeens) securely THERE, our own reality comfortably HERE and never the two shall meet, so we are safe. Pass the Orville Redenbacher Movie Theater Butter Popcorn pleeeeeeze.
This barrier completely dissolves once you bring horror to the theater – let alone a small theatre such as The Medicine Show Theatre where you’re already part of the show if you’re sitting anywhere in the first three rows (and the forth row is considered the “bad seats”). The story literally enshrouds you before one words is even spoken – as you’re shoving your bulky winter coat under your chair and setting your cell phone to vibrate that eerie mist is not just covering the dense wood but it’s swirling around your own head as well. That twilight that seems to sputter (is it getting darker in here?) and that smell that seems to permeate (can something SMELL spooky?) is everywhere, there is no separation between you and that ill-fated hunting party. And therefore the fear isn’t quite as removed either; what we’re used to experiencing at arm’s length is now happening everywhere. And all of a sudden there’s a feeling of unease that your body creates automatically … the fight or flight reaction … very clever, because now the ensemble has one more member: your amygdala.
The story, mind you, is very simple. Please … don’t confuse “simple” with “plain”, however – it is simple in that the complexity does not lie in the plot. This is the story of four men in a forest that goes on for miles; a forest that has uncharted territory, eons of mythology, and enough mystery in it to keep four grown men, two of them professionals, guessing as to what lies beyond the boarders of what they can see.
During moments when the lights went out I found myself clutching my husband’s arm (more than I do in a horror movie) and holding my breath … sure it’s “just a play” but suddenly the threat of this beast that’s “out there” is a little more palpable, specifically since “out there” seems to be right where the audience is sitting. The Wendigo could be anywhere … could be RIGHT BEHIND YOU … AHHHHH!
No, no, of COURSE cheap tricks like planting The Wendigo in the audience aren’t reverted to (we can leave that to Disney and Stitch’s Great Escape) but there’s an Algernon Blackwood line from the book (repeated in the play) that says it better than I ever could:
The spell of these terrible solitudes,” he said, “cannot leave any mind untouched, any mind, that is, possessed of the higher imaginative qualities. It has worked upon yours exactly as it worked upon my own …The Wendigo is a play based on a relatively short (50ish pages) story by Algernon Blackwood and the play is faithful to that pacing; it runs under one hour. With this amout of time the fear stays fresh, nothing has time to get re-tread and when the lights come up you can’t quite shake the feeling that something awful is lurking … just out side that door. Okay, so in this case, it’s only whatever you may run into on 10th Avenue. But I hear it’s hungry and it wants … your … soul …
Catch The Wendigo (before it catches you) until Februry 28th, 2009 at the Medicine Show Theatre – 549 West 52nd Street (10th/11th Ave). Tickets ($10) are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444, or clicking here. You can also buy tickets at the door.