Playwright: adapted by Charley Sherman
from the novella by Arthur Machen
At: WildClaw Theatre Company at
the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport
Phone: 773-935-6860; $20
Runs through: March 30
Arthur Machen's 1890 novella deserves its place among the prototypes for the next century of horror fiction, ranking alongside the classic shockers of H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. But Machen's liberal invocation of themes associated with the so-called 'decadent' art of the late 19th century—a movement identified with Oscar Wilde and his compatriots—soon contributed to its eclipse by his more conservative peers.
Playwright Charley Sherman is still remembered in Chicago for his award-winning page-to-stage adaptations of contemporary creep-lit authors, and his rendition of this period thriller is laudable for its roster of elements associated with the genre: esoteric cult-worship, gloomy abandoned houses, gruesome unnatural deaths, masquerade balls attended by licentious guests, strolls through the fleshpots of fin-de-siécle London, innocent virgins strapped to surgical tables, callow youths driven to ruin by femmes extremely-fatales ( reflecting the gilded age's fear and fascination with the notion of uninhibited sexuality—especially in women ) and, of course, gallons of lovingly-replicated gore.
Forging a concise dramatic through-line from the retrospective, largely epistolary, narrative structure then in vogue is no easy task. ( Consider, for example, the extensive reconfigurations of Bram Stoker's Dracula or Gaston Leroux' The Phantom of the Opera into the familiar legends we know today. ) But even in its final preview performance, all evidence pointed toward Sherman's text being well on its way to providing us a single hero and villain confronting one another in a linear progression, thus allowing us to see the serial killer at work, rather than experiencing our lurid shivers by means of diluted after-the-fact accounts.
The actors assembled for this WildClaw Theatre Company production were likewise near to achieving fulfillment of their nowadays often-trivialized roles: Assisted by Elise Kauzlaric's superlative dialect instruction, Tom Hickey makes a suitably buttoned-up skeptic to Lily Mojekwu's sensual mystic. Steve Herson projects conviction in the role of the technologist unable to cope with moral ambiguity, as does J. David Moeller's elderly witness whose testimony frames our story, along with an ensemble of actors and designers—in particular, Adam Kozlowski's sound, Allison Greaves' costumes and Ryan Oliver's 'biological effects.' Together, they transform what could have been merely a quaint study of prudish Victorian intolerance into a timely lesson for audiences today.