Although he wrote until his death in 1937, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was resolutely of the 19th century. His lurid prose, which frequently invoked evil in its most hideous forms, presented itself in the most formal manner possible, utterly free of idiom. This is especially true of his brief story, The Hound, which Lovecraft wrote in 1922. Lovecraft himself eventually grew to detest the story, calling it “a dead dog.” Let me add one other challenge to any thought of a stage presentation: it is written as a narrative, from the unidentified narrator to an unseen reader.
Given these problems, how could the North Shore Theatre possibly succeed in bringing this story to the stage? The answer is through ingenuity, a shrewd and judicious altering of the text, and a terrific performance by adapter Greg Oliver Bodine.
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Here is the story’s maguffin: the narrator — unnamed in the story but here identified as Reed Farnsworth (Bodine) — is a decadent whose corrupt sensibilities are satisfied only through grave-robbing. Unlike his contemporary colleagues who sell the purloined bodies to medical schools, Farnsworth and his equally depraved friend, St. John, bring the bodies to their perverse museum, where they stuff them and display them on racks. (The set features a human skull, with blonde hair still plastered to its top, in a glass box on Farnsworth’s desk.)
One day, the pair invade a Dutch graveyard in order to break into the 500-year-old tomb of another man who was himself a grave-robber. Once inside the tomb, they see a stolen amulet, reputedly imbued with magical powers. They steal it, and depart the graveyard posthaste. Then their troubles begin. They hear the baying of a gigantic hound behind them. The baying continues when they return to England.
The Hound closes July 25, 2019 at Capital Fringe 2019. Details and tickets
The play’s narrative begins in 1937 with Farnsworth relating his discovery of St. John’s mangled corpse. Thereafter, Farnsworth recounts his history; the pair’s ghastly sport; the discovery of the amulet; the arrival of the hound; and their struggle to cope with the plague their sins have loosed on them.
To surmount one of the narrative challenges, Farnsworth recites his account into a beautifully preserved 1935 AEG Magnetophon K1 Tape Recorder, which sits on a small table near Farnsworth’s desk. The tape is intended for Dr. Randolph Carter, who Farnsworth expects to show up after Farnsworth leaves the building. (On the night I saw the production, Derek Hills played Carter in a brief, wordless appearance at the end of the play. I don’t know that he will be in subsequent productions.)
The Magnetophon is an example of the meticulous technical values the North Shore Theatre has given to the production. Farnsworth briefly wields a pen that seems anachronistic, but aside from that the production reeks of authenticity. Jason McKittrick’s props, the sound by Jay Spriggs and Delisa M. White, and Piper Phillips’ lights are all spot-on. The music may strike you as the sort of symphonic music by which a 1940s horror movie might be scored. It is not; it is all original music by Graham Plowman.
But what makes The Hound work is the absolutely authentic air that Bodine brings to his performance as Farnsworth. From the moment he scrambles on stage, sweaty, looking in every direction for the scratching, whirring creature who created those sounds, he makes Farnsworth be a man truly in deadly trouble, and his excruciating panic allows us to forget the inherent implausibility of the story, and Lovecraft’s occasionally over-the-top language. Once in a while, the audience barks out in surprised laughter when it hears some especially bizarre bit of Lovecraftian prose, but Bondine handles it easily, waiting in character for the laughter to subside, and plowing ahead with Farnsworth’s terrified narrative.
Bodine improves the story at its beginning and end, setting up the narrative’s frame with a phone call to Carter and adding a dramatic event to make the story’s inexplicable conclusion more plausible. When the hound finally does arrive, though he is not on stage, we see him, in Farnsworth’s terrified expression and in the hellish green light which emanates from a doorway.
With fealty to the spirit of the story and with a brilliantly skillful production, the North Shore Theatre has transformed Lovecraft’s dead dog into what it was meant to be: The Hound of Hell.
The Hound by H.P. Lovecraft, adapted by Greg Oliver Bodine . Directed by Delisa . White, who, along with Jay Spriggs, is the sound designer . Featuring Bodine and Derek Hills . Original music by Graham Plowman . Lighting design: Piper Phillips . Property design: Jason McKittrick . Graphic design: Paula Hoza . Production stage manager: Laura Schlachtmeyer . Produced by North Shore Theatre Productions for the 2019 Capital Fringe Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.