Previews: 02/05/09- Close: 02/28/09
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Byrne Harrison
Imagination is a blessing and a curse. While it can allow one man to dream of wonders and miracles, another may only see twisted visions of death and destruction. It all depends on the mind and the circumstances. A hunter in the boundless wilds of the Canadian forests in 1898 might be forgiven for imaging that he is being hunted by a giant, deadly beast. Then again, maybe he isn't imagining it.
The Wendigo, written by Eric Sanders and based on the short story by Algernon Blackwood, does an excellent job of staying in that gray area where reality and nightmare mix. Narrated by Simpson (Nick Merritt), a young seminary student out for his first moose hunt, the play follows four hunters: Simpson, his deeply rational cousin, Doc (Erik Gratton), and their guides, Hank (Graham Outerbridge) and Defago (Kurt Uy). It's Defago, the half Indian, half Québecois hunter, who first senses something strange. A smell. Something rank and dangerous. The Wendigo, a monster that the local Indians know and fear. Forced by Hank to split into two parties in order to cover more ground, Defago and Simpson travel further into the woods. Plagued by the odor only he smells, the noises only he hears, and finally, the monster only he sees, Defago eventually disappears. What happens next can't be explained by the rational Simpson or Doc. Eventually, a bloodied and broken Defago returns. Or at least it appears to be Defago . . .
The Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's production of The Wendigo works on one very important level. It is genuinely unsettling. Featuring strong direction by Matthew Hancock, a moody sound design by M.L. Dogg, shadowy lighting by designer Brian Tovar, and a set by Nicholas Vaughan that gives the impression of a burnt out forest buried in snow, all the elements serve to put the audience in a vague state of unease. This is heightened by the fact that the Wendigo never appears onstage, and it is never put to rest whether it is real or imaginary. Much of the burden of creating the monster, or at least showing the effects of believing in the monster, falls on Kurt Uy as Defago. Constantly on his guard after catching scent of the Wendigo, Uy does an excellent job portraying Defago's growing dread, madness, and eventual destruction.
While it's up to Uy to make the audience believe in the Wendigo, the other actors do admirably as well. Gratton's deep, melodious voice is perfect for the somewhat pedantic Doc. Outerbridge does well as the cocky guide, Hank, and Merritt does a marvelous job narrating as the young and somewhat bemused Simpson.
Although it is not the meatiest of plays and doesn't feature much resolution, The Wendigo is unsettling, moody, and disturbing. Like a good ghost story told around a campfire, the play will leave you warm and maybe just a little frightened to be alone.
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