Dan Spurgeon

Dan Spurgeon

The Hunt for a More Haunting Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite

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Devereau Chumrau (seated, right) recounts the tale of The Cats of Ulthar, performed by Andrew Bourgeois (kneeling, front) and (left to right) Eric Sand, Steve Peterson (masked), Daniel Jimenez (masked), Mark Souza and Nicole Fabbri. Photo by The Visceral Company.
Devereau Chumrau (seated, right) recounts the tale of “The Cats of Ulthar,” performed by Andrew Bourgeois (kneeling, front) and (left to right) Eric Sand, Steve Peterson (masked), Daniel Jimenez (masked), Mark Souza and Nicole Fabbri in “Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite.” Photo by The Visceral Company.

Ten years ago, Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite premiered in a dingy off-off-Broadway studio theater. Born out of necessity — our company had rented a theater and the production had fallen through — it was completely non-union and thoroughly low-tech. I’d call it experimental, if only in the sense that we went from a vague idea to a full production in under two months. We had a modest though surprisingly successful run, and even turned a (very!) small profit for a change. When we closed, we congratulated ourselves on a successful run, packed the show away, and moved on to other projects when the company disbanded a few months later.

When our current enterprise, The Visceral Company, found itself in a similar situation a few months ago, with no possibilities looming for a Halloween-season show (a must for a company specializing in the horror genre!), my husband and producer Drew Blakeman suggested revisiting our well-received adaptation of years before. Though I’m usually not one to return to previous projects, especially from so long ago, this proposal was different — a decade further into my career and with greater resources, this wouldn’t simply be a new staging. It would be almost a completely new show.

Dan Spurgeon
Dan Spurgeon

The first thing to do was re-read the old script. Though the stories were all heavily condensed for staging in an anthology format running under 90 minutes (that H.P. [Lovecraft] was a wordy guy), more cuts and changes became immediately apparent. In particular, the poetry that had been used to bridge the tales needed serious revision; it hadn’t really worked the first time around, but it remained integral to the “anthology of scope and work” vision that persisted in my mind. On the brighter side, the script still revealed itself to be the right combination of stories, with potential shades of humor and terror that had eluded me before.  As far as expanding the admittedly primitive original staging, the sky was the limit — when it was first produced, the show was conceived and built to be inexpensive.

As I developed the original, a decade ago, I came upon two ideas that would later become the backbone of the show. Most important, although I had originally envisioned it as storytelling theater (inspired in no small part by a TV movie featuring Vincent Price in one-man versions of Poe), I somehow landed on the idea of using silhouettes and shadow puppets to lend greater visual impact to the stories. The notion of shadows seemed to fit hand-in-hand with Lovecraft’s unimaginable, indescribable terrors from beyond the void, and lent a low-tech air of the author’s early-20th-century environment. Though the shadow puppetry was abandoned due to lack of experience, silhouette performance became integral to the performance of many of the tales.

The other formative idea was to use a mix of men and women as narrators, even though Lovecraft wrote all of his protagonists as (presumably) male. The shift to a female perspective results in a new depth of emotion to these stories, and places feminine terrors in a decidedly different milieu. The Outsider becomes far more tragic, The Cats of Ulthar gleeful, and Cool Air a romance that’s beyond doomed. In contrast, men guide us through the midnight graveyard of The Statement of Randolph Carter, the backwoods terror of The Picture in the House, and the cosmic horror of Nyarlathotep, creating an effectively balanced nightmare of internal and external terrors.

Andrew Bourgeois, Nicole Fabbri, Eric Sand, Daniel Jimenez, Steve Peterson, Devereau Chumrau and Mark Souza.
Andrew Bourgeois, Nicole Fabbri, Eric Sand, Daniel Jimenez, Steve Peterson, Devereau Chumrau and Mark Souza.

The rest of the show changed significantly in this new staging. The aforementioned story-bridging poetry has been revised, replaced and reconceived completely. The framing device of the Storyteller, a stand-in for Lovecraft himself, has had a thorough and much more satisfying reworking. The cast has been reduced from 10 actors to eight – and that process proved that 10 was always too many. We’ve worked in not only the previously abandoned shadow puppetry, but projections and assorted other tricks and surprises as well. The silhouettes have been massively improved and expanded, and the fantastic Johnny Burton has provided sets, puppets and projections that were a mere pipe dream a decade ago. An incredible original score and sound design by Garth Herberg has replaced the tracks we originally lifted from Halloween party CDs. Dave Sousa has contributed lighting design immeasurably more sophisticated than we had, and Pam Noles has provided costumes that didn’t come from the backs of our collective closets.

Is it scary? Maybe. It depends on what you find frightening. Lovecraft has much in common with his idol Poe: a tendency to purple Romanticism, creating a brooding sense of terror that doesn’t rely so much on external frights and scares as it does on making the reader experience these horrors from deep within. The original production probably tried a little too hard to be creepy, and our reach definitely exceeded our grasp. This version has been handled with an eye toward fixing these problems, and in whole has become a much moodier and more atmospheric piece that hews closer to the spirit of Lovecraft’s classic texts.

Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite. Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood 90038. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through November 3. Tickets: $20. www.brownpapertickets.com. 323-871-1150.

** All Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite production photos courtesy of The Visceral Company.

Dan Spurgeon is a director and writer who spent his childhood devouring late-night horror movies and local theater productions. The Visceral Company, of which he is a co-founder and artistic director, is the natural result of this misspent youth.