In a world where everyone loves Stephen King…
It’s hard to be one of the critics. King himself admits he’s a sausage-maker, and I think he’s a damn good one at times. But there’s something more that a reader of his fiction — or a viewer of its adaptations — picks up after a while, and it’s pretty ironic coming from a creaky old dinosaur like yours truly.
The fact is, a lot of King’s short fiction is kinda old-fashioned in the year 2011.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Old-fashioned is good, and classics are always classics, old or new. But theater and short fiction are in a constant uphill battle for readership viewership, and they’re also in a struggle for social currency. Fusty literary journals that still think Raymond Carver is on the cutting edge, stodgy genre fiction magazines that keep serving up the fans’ favorites, community colleges and little theaters giving you the umpteenth revival of The Fantasticks or Much Ado About Nothing — all these outlets are bringing you the newest ideas of about 20-50 years ago. Again, nothing wrong with it, but publishing and theater are meant to do more than just keep the classics in circulation so that each generation can experience them for itself. (Or, more to the point, so that the same generations can experience them over and over…)
This is why the Visceral Company’s production of Dead of Night, an anthology of six Stephen King short stories adapted to the stage, feels like such a departure. The company’s trademark has been to blaze new trails in dark and disturbing theater, and they’ve done an exception job of it in their previous shows. With Dead of Night, they’re taking a somewhat safer tack — let’s face it, if Stephen King was that far off the beaten track, he wouldn’t be the world’s best selling horror writer — and the real question is, can they do it with their customary style and art? The answer is a qualified yes.
In the six short vignettes the company packs into two hours (with intermission), namely Stephen King’s “Nona,” “Strawberry Spring,” “Harvey’s Dream,” “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” “Mute” and “The Ten O’Clock People,” the Visceral Company weaves together a unifying theme of dreams, delusions, madness, altered perception, murder and the horror found in the commonplace. The cast and their directors are all strong, with particular standout performances by Jared Martzell (in “Mute” and “The Ten O’Clock People”), Roger Weiss (“Monette”) and Kathy Bell Denton (“Harvey’s Dream”).
Springheel Jack, the undead, witchcraft, homicidal maniacs, unearthly creatures and urban legends come to life — there’s no doubt the show’s got it all. And it’s impossible to fault the minimalist set by Sean Vasquez and props (though there was one rather disturbing thing about the props: They appear to my tired old eyes to be live steel blades!), and as always, the Visceral Company showcases John McCormick’s flawless sound design and Willy Greer’s highly effective original music for the show. Technically, the show’s a gem.
The bat in the ointment, unfortunately, is the source material. Stephen King + anthology theater apparently = the slightest smell of old paper and dust. (Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but…) There is sometimes the sense that we’re looking back into vague moments out of a sinister landscape of the past, despite no clear attempt to make the work a collection of period pieces. There’s also the general air of King himself writing short fiction that fits better in long-ago genre magazines than it would fit beside his own current novel output. This criticism is hard to put into words that are fair to the talent all around this show, but it really comes down to this: Stephen King’s short stories seem like B-student Twilight Zone and Tales From The Darkside episodes, and it’s hard for the Visceral Company to rise above that here.
They do, in a few places, most notably the delightful fear of the conclusion of “The Ten O’Clock People,” but otherwise there is a sense that the company has leashed itself to a well-known commercial property that really isn’t a good fit. If you had seen the Visceral Company’s previous shows (including The Revenants and Closetland, both reviewed here), the contrast would be sharp as one of King’s psychopaths’ knives. (And his stories of madness and murder do seem to crib a good deal from the late Robert Bloch, by the way, but that’s a matter for a literary criticism column.) I understand why the company would choose to do something a bit more obviously commercial, but here’s hoping they go back to blazing new trails of their own, too.
Still, this is good horror theater, and there aren’t very many places you’ll find that around town. (Just a few, in fact. Have a look around this blog and you’ll see ‘em!) Dead of Night takes a solid, workmanlike approach to an American favorite and delivers the shivers. If you’re a King fan, you’ll be especially delighted with it all; these aren’t stories of his that you see performed every day. For all that it has that touch of musty old bookstore, Dead of Night is well done, and hey, it’s Stephen King, ‘tis the Halloween season, and you don’t see shows as good as the ones put on by the Visceral Company every day. Go and enjoy!
Dead of Night is playing weekends (Fri-Sat 8 p.m., Sun 3 p.m.) through November 6, 2011, at the Historic Lankershim Arts Center. Get full details at the website.