nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
February 6, 2009
Literature—novels, plays, stories, tales, epic poems, anecdotes, bar tales, dinner table discussions...the entire canon of storytelling—is filled with examples of strange goings-on in the part of the natural landscape known as the forest. Because forests are largely dark, expansive (if not expanding), and unexplored areas of land, they are usually used as places where civilized people go to explore the lawless and more primal parts of humanity. They can be the backdrop exposing the folly of men—see the havoc Puck wreaks on two sets of lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream—or reveal the limitations of humanity, forcing protagonists to confront the horrors of their very souls—see Jack London's short stories, Robert Frost's poetry, Aesop's fairy tales and the Friday the 13th films.
The latter is on full view in The Wendigo, The Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's 50-minute memory play based on a short story by Algernon Blackwood. The story takes place in the year 1898 and follows four hunters who spend a dark and disturbing weekend hunting moose in the Canadian backwoods. There is Simpson, the narrator, the youngest and most naïve of the group. Then there is Doc, his older cousin, a charming and pedantic man who possesses the ability to rationalize most events with a deep, reassuring voice. Then there are their guides: Hank is the loosest of the four, a great hunter with the emotional depth of a serving tray and the recklessness of George W. Bush handing out nicknames. The last is DeFago, a half Indian, half Québécois city dweller who knows the woods like the back of his hand and returns to it every six months to reacquaint himself with nature.
Unsuccessful in tracking their prey, they split up. Simpson and DeFago venture deep into the forest, where 20 miles is but "a footstep." DeFago is unhappy about the split but Hank encourages it since they are being paid to guide the expedition. DeFago acquiesces. But the further they travel, the more uncomfortable he becomes. First, there is the strange smell that only he can detect. Then there is the low but menacing roar that only he can hear. All these lead to the Wendigo, the sinister creature that only he can see.
Director Matthew Hancock does commendable work building the tone and creating a haunting atmosphere. Nicholas Vaughan's set establishes a bare bones forest: black pieces of wood both hang from the lighting grid and shoot up from the ground. These pieces move as the characters bump into them, swinging long after they have moved on, suggesting an environment that is slightly unhinged. Brian Tovar's lighting design casts long shadows and creates dimly lit spaces conducive to all forms of mystery and terror.
Hancock and playwright Eric Sanders are less successful giving shape and scope to the specter of the Wendigo. They take for granted the terror the Wendigo—always unseen—induces in the characters, never connecting the fear it inspires with their individual experiences. This would work if this were a taut thriller that uses their anxieties to push them from episode to episode, but the show's pacing is pensive and the structure is more fluid. The climax of the show depends on the audience's understanding of the fear on display and left undefined, the creature's effect on the foursome can't take hold on a more visceral level.
Sanders keeps the style of his source material and the language he employs in the mouths of these capable actors is never less than fascinating. Erik Gratton in particular makes Doc a smart and copious note-taker and provides the play moments of welcome levity which make the harsher moments more effective.
Ultimately, though, The Wendigo is a show that appeals more to the intellect than the nerves. I was never in doubt that the terror was real and that the company was keenly aware of it. But the darkness—whether springing from the effects of industrialization or simply the inner lives of the characters—never comes to life.