Playwright: adapted by Scott T. Barsotti from the story by H.P. Lovecraft At: WildClaw Theatre at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6860; www.athenaeumtheatre.org; $25. Runs through: Jan. 26
As a literary genre, the horror story is fundamentally incompatible with the theater experience: If we accept the premise that what we imagine is invariably scarier than anything we can actually see or hear, the written word has the advantage of being consumed in solitude, its fancies restricted solely by our own unreliable perceptions.
The elaborate spectacles associated with 19th-century melodrama and 20th-century cinema could overwhelm audiences on sheer sensory overload, but always risked being diminished by the communal nature of their presentation. All it takes is one vocal skeptic to reduce a fortune in special-effect wizardry to backyard make-believe.
WildClaw Theatre's mission of recreating such adventures on restrictive budgets in small rooms requires them to address that challenge with every production. This time, the creepy crawlies are supplied by that master of shivery science fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, recounting the tale of a traveler who discovers evolution reversing itself upon the bleak Massachusetts coast, where the natives of a remote settlement have not only reverted to pagan worship of pastoral gods, but adopted the practice of theogenesis, resulting in a population combining characteristics of both sea and land creaturesand we're not just talking mermaids.
So how do you suggest human beings gradually changing into frogs and fish? If you're Scott T. Barsotti, you find the social message in your source materialLovecraft's seat of eroding civilization is an economically-depressed fishing village in 1931and allow director Shade Murray to forge his central visual metaphor therefrom. The citizens of Innsmouth thus appear afflicted by a degenerative respiratory illnesscoughing and vomiting, their eyes fixed in an unblinking stare and throats displaying skin lesions resembling prototypal gills. Oh, and did I mention that our narrator breathes with the aid of an inhaler?
Containing this much metaphor within the abbreviated performance time of modern dramatic presentation is a difficult task. Manual scene-shifts, however skillfully executed, when coupled with the dialogue necessary to re-establish locale, consume precious minutes, rendering the narrative set-up more coherent at initial viewings than its swift and abstract resolution. You won't find a more closely integrated ensemble currently appearing on a Chicago stage than the acting and technical team assembled for this ambitious undertaking, however, their sheer conviction redeeming the ambiguities inherent in projects of this kind.