So much of what defines terror can be summed up in one word: Atmosphere. Vagabond Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Wendigo, based on the story by Algernon Blackwood, has Atmosphere in spades. It is positively dripping in it, starting the moment you walk into the theater; from the dim lighting and snow crunching underfoot, to the air filled with smoke and spooky ambient sound, to the actor rocking back and forth onstage, clutching himself in what could be considered abject terror. The expectation established in those few minutes before the lights dim is that the audience is in for one roller-coaster thrill ride of a journey, and thankfully Vagabond delivers on their promise masterfully. The sound design was the first thing that really stuck out to this viewer. Designed by M.L. Dogg, the audience was subjected to creepy music, eerie ambient sounds, and sudden jolting noises in the best horror-film tradition. Combined with Brian Tovar’s brilliant lighting design, which really strived to do something a bit different from what one might expect, there was more than one moment of nearly jumping out of one’s seat.
The set was gorgeous, designed by Nicholas Vaughan, and evoked beautifully particular passages from the original story. The production was held together by projections created by Gino Barzizza, which not only served to fix the action in a particular time and place, but meshed all the other design elements nearly flawlessly. I say nearly, because the only thing that took me out of the play were the costumes, which were very pretty. Too pretty, in fact. Although costume designer Candice Thompson chose or built spectacular pieces, the pressed seams in the rugged adventurer’s pants kind of broke the illusion of these hardy men living out in the woods for several days, if not weeks. Everything was a little too clean, and could have used a bit of distressing, which can be understandably problematic with borrowed or rented costumes. Because of this, the piece that was the most believable was the ripped shirt belonging to the Native guide, Defago.
The play itself, written by Eric Sanders and directed by Matthew Hancock, was a fitting tribute to one of the masters of modern horror. The language flowed naturally, without having the stilted feel that some period pieces possess, and the actors seemed to relish every word. All of the performances were rock solid, with nary a weak link in the group.
The story is told in flashback, partly through the eyes of Simpson (played by Nick Merritt), a young man going on his first moose-hunting expedition in the wilds of Canada at the turn of the twentieth century. He is accompanied by noted anthropoligist Doc (played by Erik Gratton), and their two trackers and wilderness experts, Hank (played by Graham Outerbridge) and Defago (played by Kurt Uy). Without saying too much, the men get separated in the woods and things go horribly wrong.
Although there were a couple of unintentionally humorous moments (most notably when a particular sound effect and the manner in which a couple of the actors were standing made it seem like they were relieving themselves, which was even funnier later in the play when Hank actually is supposed to be relieving himself), the overall vision and artful staging by director Matthew Hancock was quite stunning. Since this is my first exposure to his work, and it was on the shorter side (coming in at about 45 minutes), I would like to see if he can sustain this sort of intensity over a longer period of time; I have a feeling I would not be disappointed.
There are far too few adaptations of the great writers that actually do them justice out there, so when one comes along it should be greatly lauded. The Wendigo is one of these plays that is truly inspires the viewer either to pick up a book and read a great work, or pick up a pen and create one. At the very least, it should inspire you to double-check your doors and leave a light on.