“Lovecraft’s CTHULHU” (playing Fridays and Sundays through March 18 at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group) is a lean, clean, highly artistic and energetic telling of the classic short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” written by Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft and published in 1928. It’s a story that’s generally seen as the true launch of the nearly 100-year-old “Cthulhu Mythos” subgenre of horror fiction, which is a sort of “viral shared universe” concept among horror writers. The basic premise is that humanity and all its works are a tiny speck of meaningless trivia in a vast sea of alien horror represented by the true and only gods that control reality—Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, which are part dark deities and part indescribable alien intelligences from… elsewhere. A lot of great narratives and ideas have grown out of the Mythos, and this milestone story is important to many of them.
The plot of “The Call of Cthulhu” itself is more or less a detective story in which a man connects the dots between two seemingly unrelated incidents: A police raid on a grisly cult murder ritual in Louisiana, and the bizarre tale of a Norwegian merchant vessel that runs afoul of vast and unspeakable horror in the middle of the uncharted seas. Both of these things are linked by the presence of a primordial being known as “Cthulhu,” which can only tenuously be explained as a hideous squid/bat/humanoid thing and also a more amorphous walking nightmare, a sort of personification of unknown dread itself. The bleak outcome of recognizing the pattern revealed by the cult murders and the sailor’s story is, to quote Lovecraft: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity…, and it was not meant that we should voyage far…”
It’s a text that’s been put on the screen in some way once or twice (most effectively by LA’s own H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society) and even previously onstage (we reviewed another play based on this short story just a few years back). But in every case, there’s been an attempt to literalize things that Lovecraft seems to have meant to leave vague or shadowy. This is not how Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group approaches “The Call of Cthulhu,” or as they call it, “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU.”
Instead, the short one-act is an ultra-faithful recitation (with performance) of the story, as much in Lovecraft’s words as possible, that combines music, lighting and sound effects, and most of all the language of acting—voice work and body work—to convey the intense dread and horror that the author intended. It’s a lot of fun to see Great Cthulhu himself appear on a stage or screen in his full rubbery glory, but the nearest the ZJU gets to this kind of direct representation is with a lovely (and story-accurate) “carven idol” of the Old One that gets the point across to those waiting for their ooga-booga to happen.
This doesn’t mean it’s a show lacking in jump scares or creepouts, but when it goes for your throat, it’s by means of, well… literally going for your throat. The actors are 150% committed to their performances, and are directed to perfection by Denise Devin (who also wrote the adaptation). They are at times psychopathic cultists, frightened policemen in a Louisiana swamp, dying Norwegian sailors and Greek choristers.
It would be impossible to point out any single performer (though Elif Savas’ extremely unnerving violin music and August Browning’s superb drum work are powerful supports to everyone’s performances) because the story is handed, line-by-line, from one actor to another. This time you are hearing everyone tell you the story as one, thematically reinforcing the idea of humanity as a helpless, huddled mass trapped on a tiny planet that is doomed by the awakening of the Great Old Ones. To see these gaunt white faces and glaring eyes on the black box stage of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre and hear Lovecraft’s words recited is both a callback to the experimental theater and painting of Lovecraft’s time and a stark representation of everything he meant when he wrote of “nameless horror” in an existential sense.
There is always a fleshly, visceral and even sexual quality to the dance-tinged theater performed at Zombie Joe’s, and despite Lovecraft’s almost monastic formality, even this show has some overtones of this. (As well as brief touches of surprising and very welcome humor!) But Lovecraft’s disgust with bodies and sex fits quite well with the ZJU way of examining sex as a subject of horror, and there’s nothing prurient about “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU”—only disturbing overtones of an orgy as a literal carnival: A farewell to the flesh.
You should go see “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU” in its brief run while you can, especially if you’re already a Mythos fan. In approaching Lovecraft and the Mythos as avant garde art, ZJU strips away a lot of the comfortable patina that has layered itself over these stories and gives them a fresh gleam of nausea, fear and loathing—in the best way. The show is on Friday nights at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre.