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21 December 2013 @ 01:39 pm
Theatre Review: The Shadow over Innsmouth  
I shall plan my cousin's escape from that Canton mad-house, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
-H. P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Over Innsmouth
"The Shadow over Innsmouth" is one of Lovecraft's most famous stories, and it's not that hard to see its pull. A secret family heritage whose ramifications echo down through the ages. Factors beyond one's control that can change the course of one's life forever. Fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers whose deeds that cannot be escaped. A change that becomes increasingly welcome to its subject as time passes, even as others become more and more repulsed.

No wait, that's The Rats in the Walls. "The Shadow over Innsmouth" is literally about the One-Drop Rule. Dammit, Lovecraft.

Anyway, softlykarou and I went to go see Wildclaw Theatre's production of The Shadow over Innsmouth yesterday, and it was great and you should all go see it if you're a fan of horror or Lovecraft. I'm always a bit suspicious of any attempt to adapt Lovecraft to a non-literary format, both because so many previous attempts have been so terrible and because a lot of the greatness of Lovecraft is in the slow, creeping terror and the mindset of the narrator as the revelation comes upon them, but "The Shadow over Innsmouth" is actually a pretty good candidate for a more kinesthetic version--it has an extended chase scene, for example--and on the whole, the quality of the stage adaptation was pretty good.

Obviously there were more characters and dialogue than in the original story, but nearly everyone is taken out of brief mentions from the text and then expanded upon, like the curator of the Newburyport Historical Society, the purveyor at the Innsmouth grocery, or the narrator's cousin. There are a few additions and reshufflings as well, the primary one being that the main character is a woman, though I didn't feel like it had a significant effect on the changes made to the story. In addition, there were a few more characters added in Innsmouth, and a trip to Arkham carried with it a visit to a professor at Miskatonic University. Some of this did feel like padding--I wasn't particularly impressed with any of the conversations with the Marshes in Innsmouth, as it seemed like an attempt at comic relief that mostly fell flat--but stretching out the beginning did allow a much better sense of creeping horror than in the original source.

In the text, the vast majority of the time is spent in the exploration and subsequent escape from Innsmouth, with the body horror aspect only coming in at the end in the last chapter. In the play, the evidence that there is something odd about Olmstead starts quite early, from the brief mention of damage to her lungs in a near-drowning when she was a child and subsequent asmatic fits to the occasional dreams she has to the whisperings she hears when she views the pieces of Innsmouth jewelry held at Miskatonic University and the Newburyport Historical Society. The audience learns early that there's something odd about Olmstead and her cousin, and it is continually reinforced throughout the play. I especially liked the repeated phrase:
"Tell me--do you ever find it...difficult to close your eyes?"
and the way that flashbacks and dreams were added in, though I personally found it somewhat difficult to distinguish the two until about half-way through the course of the play.

I did feel the ending fell somewhat flat, though, about which more later.

The sound design was fantastic. Innsmouth had a constant sound of water, from the crashing of waves when Olmstead was talking to Zadok near the ocean to the sound of rain on the roof when she was staying in the inn. The whispering whenever she saw the odd jewelry was suitably creepy, and the way that the characters from Innsmouth talked... Honestly, I have to give them huge kudos for being able to do all that coughing, hacking, rasping, wheezing, and gurgling night after night. I played a Gangrel in a Vampire LARP once whose bestial deformity was an animalian voice, and as I discovered rather quickly, having to growl and rasp out everything I wanted to say made actually participating in the LARP quite difficult.

I also have to praise the stagehands. The actors did all the moving of props, and as the story went on the props came more and more to be moved by shrouded and shambling figures making disturbing coughing sounds as they worked. It did a great job of adding to the mood.

One of the text's major scenes, the conversation with Zadok Allen and the revelations about the past--and present--of Innsmouth was good, and the actor who played Allen did a good job, but I can't help but feel that some of the growing horror that pervaded the entirety of the play should have been introduced into this monologue. Olmstead treats Allen's conversation with disbelief and scorn--not surprising, considering the content--but Allen remains jovial throughout, and only attains a slight note of seriousness toward the end when he's describing how Obed Marsh took control of the town. Only when Allen sees that the other denizens of Innsmouth have come to punish his transgressions does he really turn serious, and then he gets grabbed and dragged away in a sudden mood whiplash--a few people in the audience even laughed. In the text, Allen starts out laughing, but becomes more and more serious as the conversation goes on until he's not laughing at all. Then he starts ranting and raving and eventually shrieks as he looks over Olmstead's shoulder, causing Olmstead to whip around and stare out to sea, but all he can see is the pounding of the waves. I would have preferred a more gradual build-up of the tension during the monologue. Maybe not to the level of the text, since the over-the-shoulder scene is difficult to do on the stage--though there were several robed and shrouded figures standing among the audience the served as the thing in the water Allen saw--but a bit more than the sudden change.

That's part of my complaint with the ending, and as some changes were made, this part will be spoilered: [Spoiler (click to open)]In the text, Olmstead escapes from Innsmouth by sneaking from street to street and then going along the old, abandoned rail line. In the play, this is suggested by the mortally-wounded grocer, but Olmstead goes back for her cousin. In the depths of the church of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, she finds her cousin tied up on an altar in the depths, meets Obed Marsh, who gives her a monologue about her ancestry and entreats her to join the Deep Ones beneath the waves. Then the shoggoth comes out.

I really didn't like that. Marsh's comics-style villainous ranting completely shattered the tension that had been building up to that point for me, and because of that, I just thought the shoggoth was kind of silly, even though it was pretty well staged. I was much happier with what followed--Olmstead's mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who had been appearing in her dreams throughout the play, appeared in the flesh to invite her to join them, leading to a coughing fit, Olmstead being dipped in the water, and the final line of the play: the whispered, "I can breathe." It would have been just as effective if Marsh and the shoggoth had been eliminated entirely, and Olmstead had fainted when he cousin was carried away, and then the maternal line had come out. Their enticing whispers to join them were much more effective at conveying the attractiveness of swimming down to Cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei than Marsh's raving.

Basically, the text makes this part about a thrilling chase scene and tension of wondering whether Olmstead will escape or not, and then changes gears and switches to body horror and transformation into something inhuman. The play skips the chase almost entirely other than escaping from the hotel and keeps the focus on the Innsmouth Look. That part I liked.

The play took different tactic with the body horror than the text, but I think the tension was actually better in the play, since the "who am I?" aspect is only present in the final chapter of the text. Since turning into an inhuman monster and welcoming it is the horror that moderns take out of the play now that no one worth listening to cares about miscegenation any more, emphasizing that aspect was a good change.

But despite those quibbles I have with it, overall The Shadow over Innsmouth is probably the best adaptation I've ever seen of a Lovecraft story to another format. It is definitely worth your money and your time.
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
Current Music: Nox Arcana - Ritual of Summoning
(Anonymous) on December 24th, 2013 09:54 am (UTC)
Test, just a test
Hello. And Bye.