Since 2002 Seattle’s Open Circle Theater has made their fall season something for any well-read horror fan to look forward to. Every year, from mid-October to mid-November they adapt a story by master-of-weird-horror H.P. Lovecraft and perform it on stage at their Belltown location. I only learned of the tradition two years ago and by that time the shows were selling out well in advance. To be honest, given the region’s predisposition to sneer at the genre, I have been surprised at the warm reception the productions receive. Despite the fact that I am just another horror fan in the area I’m quite proud of their work.
So when I was asked to help spread the word for this year’s show I leaped at the chance. Then they told me what they were doing and I deflated. Pickman's Model.
Really? That? As any fan of Lovecraftian movies can tell you, it's a story that's been committed to film and digital storage more times than possible to count. Ok, so it is possible but it's a lot of work and suffice it to say, there are a lot of versions out there.
So I really wasn't sure what to expect and was not exactly looking forward to sitting through yet another rendition of the same story. But I had faith. In the past they had delivered and so I would give them a chance. I am very glad I did.
John McKenna's vision of Lovecraft's classic tale is revisioned in a stunningly original and fresh way. The play opens in a modern Seattle gallery where Richard Upton Pickman (played by Simon Astor) is set to unveil his latest piece of work, Ghoul Feeding. Main characters Vivian (Marianna De Fazio) and Eliot (Kenna Kettrick) scramble, each in their own way, to ensure that Pickman’s vision goes off as planned -complete with an elaborate performance art piece- in spite of a frazzled curator (Jennifer Pratt) and the dire warnings of Eliot’s conspiracy-theorist ex-boyfriend, Adam (Colin Scheirber). However, no amount of planning could help overcome the unexpected death of a dancer at the finale of The Music of Eric Zann (a word for word recounting and performance, expertly woven in to the play that adds depth and flavor to a deepening plot; executed by the talented Liz Cortez and Cassandra Moselle) or the crimes that seem to follow Pickman’s colleague, the offensive Dr. Reed (Don MacEllis), around like a polluted halo. As Vivian and Eliot pry further into the mysteries surrounding the night they uncover hidden histories of the city, long repressed, visions best left unseen, and find themselves trapped within a danger greater than they ever could have imagined.
Due to the unique set up of the theater’s seating I actually did find myself quite frightened during the play’s harrowing climax (it should be noted that I ENJOY being scared) and while the friend who accompanied me to the rehearsal was disappointed that there wasn’t as big a pay off at the end scare wise, I’m not sure that I could have personally handled one. (Ok, I could have and would have loved it but I would have shrieked loud enough to embarrass myself and I am NOT ok with that) It was plenty scary to me.
My only real complaint is that I felt as though the plot could have explored a lot more, given us more time to savor the mysteries and experience the fear the two women feel as they uncover more and more connections leading from their former employer to a terrible brutality that spread up and down the west coast. But to pull that off the play would have ended up being twice as long and it was wonderful just the way it was. The writers (Dustin Engstrom, Vince Kovar, John McKenna and Ron Sandahl) took a story we’ve seen brought to life numerous times and showed us something so new that I can’t wait to go see it a second time! As a paying customer no less! And that is really saying something.