5 POINTS OR LESS
good production elements • really short • narration took me out of action
BOTTOM LINE: You know that friend that liked X-Files a lot? This is his show.
So part of me has wondered for a while why there's so little theater around whose purpose is to scare the pants off you. I mean, think about it - the musical genre has crossed over into film, shouldn't there be a two-way street happening somewhere there? Enter the Vagabond Theater Ensemble's The Wendigo, adapted by Eric Sanders from the story by Algernon Blackwood.
The show really does have a lot of good things going for it. The story of "a hunting trip gone awry" (as director Matthew Hancock puts it) paired up with supernatural forces at work in the woods, is a classic set-up for creep-out, and the set and sound design support it really well. Nicholas Vaughn makes good use of limited space, weaving the architecture of the theater into a minimalist set design. And, though there are moments when the horror movie underscoring is a bit heavy-handed, sound designer M.L. Dogg should really be recognized for the bit of genius that is the Wendigo's voice.
Now, staging a hunting trip that spans the long miles of 19th century Canadian wilderness is no easy task, and there were some moments when I found myself watching an actor walk in circles rather than watching a character hike through the forest. There are, however, some subtler moments of really effective staging - a man being drawn slowly toward his doom, his brief and tortured return - and those images will creep you out well into the night.
I think the thing that keeps the show from being as successful as it could be is this first person narrator thing they have going on. To me, being scared by a story is predicated on the idea that you're there with the protagonist, and that the events could have happened or could still happen to you. So, y'know, in literature, a first person narrator totally works. In this play, however, the action keeps getting interrupted by a narrative explanation of what happens next, so the suspense never really gets a chance to build. It also reminds you that the play is unfolding in the protagonist's past, not his present, which again undercuts a lot of the suspense.
I will say that despite that shortcoming, the story is pretty well developed for an incredibly quick run time (under an hour, I think). The actors handle the language without sounding stilted and make clear character choices from the get-go which is a blessing in a short show. All in all, the show's not quite as creepy as it could be, but you'll still probably need a buddy there to take the edge off.
(The Wendigo plays February 5 through 28 at the Medicine Show Theater, 549 West 52nd Street, 3rd Floor. Show times are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Sunday February 22rd at 3pm and Wednesday February 25th at 8pm. Tickets are $10; to purchase visit www.smarttix.com.)