Quick, what’s the last “scary” play you’ve seen? Plays dealing with horror seem not to be afforded a prominent place under the big umbrella of theater, perhaps because they are “genre” pieces? The nerdy cousins to more “respectable” or “serious” shows? Or is it then that the stage has just ceded horror to the big screen, where even a meager budget can produce buckets of gore and a few moments of white-knuckling the armrest?
The Wendigo, an adaptation of Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 story, written by Eric Sanders and produced by the Vagabond Theatre Ensemble, seeks to reclaim a bit of terror for the stage, not with gory grand guignol theatrics but solid storytelling. What begins as a hunting trip into the Canadian backwoods — and at the outset might initially be another take on the sturdy old theme of man vs. nature — devolves into a tale of existential dread and supernatural menace.
The Wendigo is almost like a rediscovered script rather than most current attempts to place a frightening story onstage. There is no framing device or winking irony, no postmodern deconstruction of the source material. It is a campfire tale of a play, driven by language and mood. Shifting projections of the forest, a nearly bare stage dusted with snow, and strips of wood hung to resemble a copse of trees comprise the set, which is all that is needed to telegraph the desolation of the place. An intricate soundscape plays underneath the action, establishing the atmosphere with intricate gurgles and snaps and other ethereal sounds, but natural and supernatural.
It seems right that the theater should begin to reclaim the genre of horror, not the torture porn aesthetic of the Saw Franchise, or the rending of licentious teens limb from limb in grim chastity allegories, but rather the psychological horror, the primal dread of the unknown. In the show’s program notes, Algernon Blackwood is described as exploring “in profound detail the effects that both real and ‘perceived’ extraordinary events have on the human psyche.” Also that he sought to evoke “spiritual terror” in his works, “to strike at the core of what makes us human: how we define our universe and our place within it.”
These are the questions that all great plays have attempted to answer, and if the experience comes with a few frights, all the better.
More info: Vagabond Theatre Ensemble