First it was just strange dreams. Then it was sinister voices. Now, the followers of Cthulu roam the streets in search of the servants and sacrifices that can bring the Old Ones – specifically Cthulu — back from beyond and end our world as we know it.
That’s the basic premise behind The Call of Cthulu, adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s work by playwright Robert Cousins and playing now at the Capital Fringe Festival. The Call of Cthulu is an experience as much as it is a play. There’s ample engagement between the actors and the audience. We’re asked for prompts that lead to improvisational scenes, invited into the cultist rituals (sort of), and front-row for the fight between our world and the Old Ones, regardless of where you’re actually sitting.
This play – or shall we call it an event — is brought to us by The Phenomenal Animals, a theater company in residence at Chesapeake College. “Theater should be an experience,” they tell us. “A game, a ritual, a carnival, and a water park.”
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And if the image of theater-as-water-park gives you any pause, I’d submit that it’s perhaps the most apt description of the Cthulu experience: Wet, wild, and a little out of control.
The show opens with Professor Angell (Brandon Walls) of Brown University, a bearded scholar of the arcane who invites us to participate in an experiment as cultists and madmen roam across the stage and audience. The experiment, it turns out, is largely a mechanism to farm prompts from the audience that anchor a few improvisational scenes.
Soon thereafter, Professor Angell is approached by Henry Wilcox, a sculptor/artist (and presumably a student – it isn’t clear) who comes to the professor in search of answers: about strange dreams, strange markings, and whispers of something sinister afoot.
The Call of Cthulu closes July 28, 2019 at Capital Fringe 2019. Details and tickets
What follows are a series of short scenes with investigators, sailors, our aforementioned professor and others who encounter a raft of strange occurrences, all leading up to the release of the great and terrible Cthulu.
Fans of the genre (I’m one) will have little trouble following what’s happening, but that’s only because we’re in on the madness. Everyone else might find themselves lost and afraid, as if hearing from the Old Ones themselves. That makes for some challenging ‘interaction’ that left me wondering if the cast was having more fun than the audience.
There simply isn’t much tying this all together. The play boasts 9 actors playing 14 named characters, not including “The Cult,” which serves as a sort of chorus for the madness. Yet somehow, we don’t know anything about any of them, leaving us with no one to grab onto. If there’s a protagonist, I’m unable to name them, and our antagonist is represented by a cult that largely just moans and shrieks, or speaks in code if they even speak at all.
This is also a highly physical work, packed with fights and high-dramatics, which could be fun if it didn’t all feel just a little unsafe. At one point, Professor Angell fell into a wall as he crashed off the stage.
Likewise, the play includes fights that take place in the aisle, just a hair’s-breath away from the audience. That requires precision and professional stage fighting. What we saw appeared lightly rehearsed and ever so slightly out of control, as evidenced by the actors occasionally bumping or jostling an audience member (my companion among them). Perhaps worst of all, a number of the fights occur on the ground, out of the line-of-sight for all but the front row.
I’ll take the hit for sounding like an old man: Someone is going to get hurt.
The result is not so much madness as confusion, but that’s not to say there isn’t some good in the effort.
The cast is high-energy and muscles through its rough-and-tumble scenes. There is no question that they have a lot of heart and talent. There’s also some strong tech work, with great effects, effective costuming, and strong sound design. Props to scenic team Briana Litteral and Jimmy Baynard, Arts & Crafts Specialist Ryan Pearson, and Sound Designer Rob Thompson.
Moreover, I’d note that I shared the audience with a man sporting a Cthulu t-shirt and ball cap that read “Horror Nerd”. On my way out, as I pondered the nicest way to write that this play has potential with a little editing, restraint, playtesting and overall professional attention, I heard the man tell his friend, “That was fun!”
He said it with an inflection that implied everything else I said above, but he said it. And he’s right. The Call of Cthulu is fun, if a little broken. And really, if that isn’t a show that’s ripe for Fringe, I’m not sure what is.
The Call of Cthulu by Robert Cousins . Directed by Savannah Cerrette . Cast: Lucy Bond, Shannon Landers, Olivia Litteral, Brandon Walls, Jacob Wheatley . Presented at Capital Fringe 2019 . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.
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