Nightmare Royale #16: “THE CALL OF CTHULHU” Must Live, So That You May Die!!! (On Why the Ultimate Lovecraftian Performance Cannot be allowed to Vanish from this Earth)Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),News John Skipp
[WARNING: this is not a column. This is a call to arms.]
In the last installment of NIGHTMARE ROYALE, I babbled on for a bit about H.P. Lovecraft, his weird legacy as it plays out to this day. In the process, I dropped a couple of paragraphs on a little piece of upcoming live theater I expected to much enjoy, playing a short run in L.A. An adaption of “The Call Of Cthulhu”, from local favorites The Visceral Company.
But then I saw it. Went holy shit.
So lemme just lay it out, right here:
If you love Cthulhu, and the mythos sprawling from it, you will NEVER have a more purely Lovecraftian live experience than watching the amazing Frank Blocker own Lovecraft’s words on visionary director Dan Spurgeon’s stage, delivering 72 riveting minutes of non-stop spiraling monologues from a dozen shifting characters – each of whom he conjures whole – amidst a staggering range of nightmare soundscapes and immaculately puppeteered visuals, cunningly calculated to suck you in and slaughter you.
I know how easy it is to whip this kind of snappy hyperbole around. But believe me, I’m only saying it because it’s true. So allow me to break down the enormity of that statement, walk you through its component parts.
First off, the obvious question for many will be, “Well, what about RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL?” Yes, the great Stuart Gordon has brought this hilarious, gore-spattered spectacular to the stage with ever-mounting success. (It’s prepping for a run in Vegas, as we speak.) And it is, without a doubt, the FUNNIEST Lovecraft you’ll ever see live.
But does it conjure the nightmarish feelings of cosmic dread we associate with the reclusive maestro’s work? No, it does not. It’s a fucking laugh riot, with a bonus “splatter zone” where you’re advised to bring a tarp, because the firehosing crimson doesn’t restrict itself to the stage. And I suspect ol’ H.P. would have loaded his pants with his own stygian darkness, were he ever to have caught one of these performances.
THE CALL OF CTHULHU, on the other hand, probably would have brought Lovecraft to tears, if he didn’t die of a heart attack first. Because what Blocker (who also adapted it for the stage) and Spurgeon have done is to physicalize his prose, carrying you along with its voice as – on a single set – we move from the desolate Rhode Island home of Henry Wilcox to the Louisiana swamps of Inspector LeGrasse to Gustaf Johansen’s trial at sea and back, then back again to the primal origins from which these nightmares spring. Then back into the audience, to assault you directly. At which point, you die. Because Cthulhu has come.
The fact that all this is performed by one single actor is downright astonishing. But Blocker accomplishes this through a virtuoso lexicon of modulating physicalities, accents, and voices that ranks ultra-fucking high on the Robin Williams/John Lithgow scale of chameleonic off-the-chartness. Add to this a level of Vincent Price old-school command, and you start to get the gist of what I’m getting at here.
The only one-man performance I can compare this to – in the horror-based theater lexicon – is Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe in NEVERMORE (also directed by Gordon, and like RE-ANIMATOR, adapted by Dennis Paoli).
It’s a comparison both steep and apt. Because anyone who’s seen Combs play Poe knows they’re in the presence of theatrical brilliance, working at an all-time career high. And that’s precisely how blow-away Blocker is here. How entirely he owns the stage, even as he disappears completely into character after character after character. As my friend Marnie said, “Now THAT’S an actor!”
Best of all, he breathes life, poetry, ferocity and charm into Lovecraft’s overwrought, personality-impaired prose. These words have NEVER sounded this good, this nuanced and human. So for those of you who cringe at the notion of listening to an hour of droning Lovecraftianisms, fear not.
And then we get to the staging, where set, prop, and puppet designer Johnny Burton (pictured with Blocker, below) makes visual magic: using Wilcox’s den as the prime staging area, then strategically making it disappear, as the red smoking skies of the bayou orgy take over, later replaced with stormy ocean skies.
And through it all, Cthulhu appears: first as a stone carving you can fit in your hand, growing larger with each return, as increasingly elaborate puppets bring the horror to awe-inspiring enormity in the tiny black box theater, eventually overwhelming the stage entirely.
Add to this Joshua Silva’s pinpoint lighting design and Tyler Burton’s unbelievably haunting soundscapes, clinging to Blocker’s every move, line and pause like shimmering sonic skin. Put it all together, and you have something unforgettable.
Now here’s the bad news: THERE ARE ONLY TWO MORE SHOWS IN ITS LOS ANGELES RUN! This Friday and Saturday, at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood (6760 Lexington Avenue, 90093) will be your last chance until further notice.
That’s why I’m saying: THIS SHOW MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO PERISH FROM THIS EARTH! It’s gotta go on the road, play the country and beyond, because it’s too fucking good to miss. It needs to play Boston. It needs to play Chicago. It needs to play universities, festivals, conventions. It needs to play the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, both in Portland and Southern California.
And frankly, I feel it should keep running in L.A. forever. So that one by one, this finest and most faithful of productions can find its chosen people. And devour them whole. JUST SAYIN’!
Okay! That’s it for me! Andrew Kasch and I are off to direct our installment in the new TALES OF HALLOWEEN anthology, and that’ll keep us tied up till the end of the year. HAVE A GREAT ONE, EVERYBODY!