“Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite” (currently playing at the Lex in Hollywood, CA) is an H.P. Lovecraft fan’s dream—literally and figuratively, as it presents a remarkably faithful adaptation of some of the 20th century horror giant’s best-loved short fiction, all wrapped up in a fitful, shadowy dream-narrative wraparound (starring HPL himself, played by Eric Sand with a fine balance of growing panic and purple melodrama).
All the text of the framing sequence and the six chilling tales are derived from Lovecraft himself—and as anyone who’s read HPL knows, he was not a man of few (or simple) words. The challenge of bringing a well-paced, succinct collection of his work to the stage is deftly met here by writer/director Dan Spurgeon, who clearly knows when to let the father of Cthulhu Mythos run wildly across fields of verbiage and when to rein him in.
The text stylings aren’t the only hurdle for an adaptation of Lovecraft. The Providence-based author was also fond of cosmic landscapes and mind-shattering revelations that happen on grand and terrible scales of time and space. Most theater is content to take us from a bus stop to a dining room table and back again, but that won’t quite work in this case. “Nightmare Suite” takes the audience from inside Lovecraft’s head to a rotting cemetery in a swamp (“The Statement of Randolph Carter”) to the strange village of Ulthar (“The Cats of Ulthar”) to a dark ruin (“The Outsider”), from a decaying farmhouse in a rainstorm (“The Picture in the House”) to a New York boarding house during a June heatwave (“Cool Air”), and to a Manhattan exhibition hall (“Nyarlathotep”) and back into HPL’s brain once more. It’s a tribute to how well this show is staged that each setting is distinct and fascinatingly drawn—often through creative solutions of puppetry (designed by John Burton), lighting (by Dave Sousa) and sound (by Garth Herberg), and the versatile set itself (also by Burton). The costuming by Pam Noles is also a standout.
Each member of the ensemble is given a chance to shine with both energy and restraint— especially the latter, since most Lovecraft stories are basically a first-person narrative by a character degenerating into psychosis. Nearly 80 years after the tormented author’s death, these stories are still gripping fiction to read, but can easily descend into somewhat camp theatrics. Fortunately, that’s not the case in “Nightmare Suite.” Both director and cast understand that not every one of these stories can be the equivalent of a violin string being played in a higher and higher key until it snaps—thus, the show has moments of pathos (the tragic performance of Maya Eshet in the allegorical “The Outsider”), wry Dunsany-esque gallows humor (Devereau Chumrau’s arch narration in “The Cats of Ulthar”) and a broad sense of an everyday literary-style character who’s walked into the wrong story (Nicole Fabbri as the bewildered lodger in “Cool Air”).
But Mythos fans, take heart (or appropriate transdimensional monster viscera): “Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite” delivers on the mind-destroying revelations and apocalyptic visions of universe-ending destruction. Apart from a detour into Lovecraft Country for “The Picture In The House” (in which Mark Souza’s extremely well-observed Young Man meets Steve Peterson’s pitch-perfect Old Man in what I thought of during the performance as “Dueling Good Acting”), we also get an appearance of Lovecraft’s recurring pseudo-hero, Randolph Carter (solid performance by Andrew Bourgeois) and a riveting one-man narrative of the horrors of the Old Ones offered up by Daniel Jimenez in “Nyarlathotep.”
Note also that this is an adaption for 21st century audiences. Lovecraft was not the most enlightened man, for all his brilliance, even in his own time. The Visceral Company production makes some of his unspecified narrators into women, includes people of color, and generally shakes up the panorama of HPL’s world for the better.
Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, rotting homesteads near Arkham, ghouls, science gone wrong, the Crawling Chaos and HPL himself—what more could one ask? It’s a chilling Halloween treat you’ll be glad to experience.
The Visceral Company’s production of “Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite” plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and matinees on Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m., through November 3, at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood.