Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group is nothing if not enticing. Every year they seem to come up with some new concept that calls to me. This winter, they are presenting “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU,” based on a sub-genre of horror that I have become more exposed to thanks to board games, of all things. I am speaking of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, specifically the Cthulhu Mythos! The Mythos has become so ingrained in my gaming circle that it’s hard to remember it’s not as well-known as I think it is.
The Cthulhu Mythos is a sprawling network of stories, started by Lovecraft but expanded on by other authors. Since the work is in the public domain, anyone can create works based upon it, whether literature, gaming, or anything else. The central conceit is that of Great Old Ones, timeless beings that the human mind is too small to comprehend, who slumber or are otherwise trapped until such time as they rise again to devour men’s souls. It’s a remarkably malleable universe, suitable for any medium and style that a creator may wish to apply to it. For “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU,” Zombie Joe’s has gone back to the story’s roots.
Fear of the Unknown
Walking into Zombie Joe’s familiar black box, I was literally and figuratively in the dark. With my Lovecraft-loving gaming friend alongside me, we had no idea what kind of production we were going to see. I had made a point to find out very few details of the show.
Despite being aware of Cthulhu for years, I had never read the original story. Other Zombie Joe shows I’d attended were always vignettes, short stories often short enough to be told without words. Surprisingly, the show seemed to fit that M.O. while being completely the opposite in presentation.
Nearly the entire show is narration. The words scarcely stop flowing. And yet, the creators found a way to break it into smaller chunks, to keep the audience on their toes and give the performers a break. Different actors take turns delivery the story, full of arcane words, while surrounded by their fellow cast members. There are no sets, barely any costumes, and only one (pretty cool) special effect. Despite the minimalism, however, the show never gets boring.
The actors all have a light coating of white makeup on their faces, making them look somewhat otherworldly and not quite human. Every change in speaker is accompanied by the mass of bodies contorting to put a new performer front and center. This writhing is very thematic to the story and genre, and the exaggerated facial expressions add just the right touch of uncertainty. Each speaker looks on the verge of becoming unhinged at hearing the very story they are telling you. There are even two jarring musical interludes performed by a cast member playing the violin, which felt much more fitting than synthesize music over speakers.
After the show, I was going over the story in my head for quite some time. With a lot of narration full of weird words that my brain couldn’t digest easily, I had a strong urge to read the source material. My friend and I discussed how the atmosphere conveyed in this production made it clear there is a lot of potential for other adaptations of this or other Lovecraftian stories. I want to see what a Cthulhu-themed performance would look like with characters, sets, etc. “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU” acts as a gateway to this world, and how deep you want to go is up to you. My friend (who has read the original work) said the “simplicity and starkness of the set and wardrobe reflect the dry, spare qualities of Lovecraft’s writing.” So the unsettling essence of the Elder Gods remains intact, even if my desire for visual spectacle was hungry for more.
After my initial rush of excitement upon hearing about a Cthulhu play, I became curious as to what tale would be told. There have been so many stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos that I wasn’t sure if this play was based on one piece of writing, a combination of his stories, or if it was a brand new piece set in the world he created. I found out that director Denise Devine had adapted Lovecraft’s original short story “The Call of Cthulhu” for this theatrical presentation. She was also able to take some time from preparing the play to answer a few of our questions.
Are you a fan of all horror, or Lovecraft in particular? How long have you been interested in Lovecraft’s writing, and why did you want to tell this particular story instead of any of his others?
I am a fan of psychological horror, in general. But what I am mostly is a big fan of is our ZJU Horror. I love Zombie’s Urban Death and the Blood Alley. I was original cast of Urban Death, and now I am the show’s biggest fan. We also did a number of Poe stories: Masque of the Red Death, Tell Tale Heart, The Black Cat, just to name a few.
When I started, I adapted and directed a number of Shakespeare plays. I loved the language. I loved the stories. So when I read Cthulhu, I fell in love with all my favorite things: great language, great story, and both Zombie and I felt that the story could be wonderfully theatrical. I wanted to present Call of Cthulhu because of its mystery, as well as its theme. The story itself has a great mysterious call, a voice from somewhere else, a voice you can’t ignore. And man’s cosmic insignificance is probably the greatest fear of us all – that we don’t count, that there is no real meaning to life. From a horror perspective, what a great work. And then there is the breadth of the story. With a famous monster, evil cults! I wanted to explore this deep-seated fear of all of us, and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is perfect.
Do you think someone unfamiliar with Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos will be able to enjoy the show, or is it geared towards those who already have some knowledge?
I think everyone will be able to enjoy the show. The cast and myself have been working hard to make the show very accessible to all. Whether someone is a fan, or just being introduced to Lovecraft, I think the show will be good for all.
Do you have a favorite Lovecraftian movie? How about one of his stories that hasn’t been adapted for the screen but you think should be?
You know, I don’t have a favorite! And I think all his stories should be adapted for the screen.
Do you think this play is more complicated or difficult than what you may have done before? Do you think your previous experience made you more prepared for this subject matter?
Every project has its challenges, and everything gives you more experience and knowledge. And in many ways I have needed all of my experience for this project. I have adapted maybe 10 Shakespeare plays, cutting them to an hour format, for our theater. I had to do the same with this story too, and all my previous editing experience came in real handy!
Cthulhu is extremely rich, dense material. So again, very much like the Shakespeare plays, we have had to work on delving into the language and really tell the story from a theatrical perspective. It is also a great adventure and mystery story. And it’s a horror story, first and foremost. This is probably the biggest challenge for me, the horror of it. How to keep such a famous story fresh, find the “scary” and present it theatrically and “for real.”
And I wanted to take this story, and make it a hybrid of all the great, very visual and visceral horror that we do here at Zombie Joes, with all the language of the classics I have done previously. So yes, it’s been challenging but a great challenge! I have had to be more creative technically than ever before, and work even more collaboratively than usual with the cast as we create this world of Cthulhu – deep, rich, scary, emotional, and accessible. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, it’s completely engrossing, and I am very happy with a lot of what we have come up with so far. I hope horror fans will be too.
Our thanks to Denise Devine for talking to us about her new play! Lovecraft’s CTHULHU is playing at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group in North Hollywood on Fridays at 8:30 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm through March 18, 2018. Tickets are only $15 and can be bought here. For more information, visit their website at zombiejoes.com.