Theater Review: The Wendigo

I went to see the Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's The Wendigo with some trepidation. How would Algernon Blackwood's classic horror tale of the Canadian woods translate to the stage? Like his predecessor Poe, Blackwood wrote meticulous and fairly dense prose, and the tale for which he is best known earns its frightfulness through the vividly descriptive power of his language. Too, as with "The Wendigo"'s direct modern descendant, The Blair Witch Project, not much actually happens in it.

Two Brits and two local guides head into the deep woods to hunt moose. One of the guides, Defago, believes too deeply in the Wendigo, a mythical Algonquin figure of terror. When it calls his name, he goes off with it and undergoes an awful transformation.

The story's power lies in its evocation of mysterious primeval forces that may yet lurk in the depths of the forest in spite of human civilization. Such tales electrify our fur by pricking at our most primitive, arboreal fear: that of becoming prey. Dr. Cathcart (Eric Gratton) represents the psychological approach, insisting that the strange goings-on are the result of mental instability brought on by the wilderness. "The Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction." But finally the psychologist's science can't completely explain what's happened.

Blair Witch took a modern approach to this kind of story, made possible by the medium of film: it placed the audience behind the eyes of the characters. One can't do that in the theater, of course. But one might imagine staging a wordy story like "The Wendigo" by turning it inside out, snaking deep into the minds of the characters in some other way. Playwright Eric Sanders has chosen to tell the story straight, though. Essentially true to the action of the original, his 45-minute version relies heavily, as did the original story, on atmosphere. Here it's created by the trusty trappings of B-movie horrordom: insistent sound effects, spooky music, sudden and extreme lighting changes, a murky forest set – along with that modern theatrical staple, projection.

An able, creative crew handles all these elements with gusto. But in playing it straight Sanders also depends on a lot of narration. Early on, director Matthew Hancock has the young seminarian Simpson (Nick Merritt) storming about the stage as he describes action that we're not seeing. There's nothing wrong with a little narration – that's partly what a Greek chorus was for, after all. But in a play this short, I wished for more showing and less telling.

Maybe that's a lot to ask of a tale in which mood and suggestion are so important, and in which (as in Blair Witch) the "monster" is never really seen. But something was distinctly missing here, and it wasn't from Hancock's direction or from the performances, which were good all around. Of note was Kurt Uy, who plays Defago with a gruff, dark touchiness and a lasered focus. As soon as he appeared, I thought: that man is Defago. And with its direct telling, this production is "The Wendigo." But it's "The Wendigo" minus the rich texture of Blackwood's prose, and the special effects don't fully make up for that.

The Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's production of The Wendigo runs through Feb. 28 at the Medicine Show Theatre, 549 W. 52 St. Tickets at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.