H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to other media, but Michael Sabbaton manages to take the author’s signature short story, The Call of Cthulhu, and deftly distil it down to its malign influences in his one man stage adaption. At its heart is a compelling if plain wooden box that sits on pedestal at the left of the stage, exerting its influence to pull the audience back and forth through the madness, the paranoia, and the despair of those whose possession it falls into. The box is said to contain the ‘Horror in Clay’ that we learn depicts something beyond the comprehension of man, though mercifully the box is never opened* and we never see its contents.
*I had the opportunity to open the box but resisted… Laying my hand upon it was mercifully enough.
Beginning with Francis Wayland Thurston, Sabbaton slips back and forth to the characters in the story, first sculptor Henry Wilcox, then Thurston’s granduncle Professor Angell, followed by Inspector John Legrasse, and lastly, to the cultist, ‘Old Castro’. Each of these changes in personality and fragility is achieved with the simple adjustment of costume or the picking up of a prop, occasionally supported by a drop into darkness or crash of sound. In some cases, these changes actually mark the switch from one participant of a conversation to another. This is at first disconcerting, but as the story progresses, it serves to take us back from the Roaring Twenties through the characters to Legrasse’s fateful encounter with the strange, writhing , cavorting degenerates before the corpulently alien statuette deep in the New Orleans swamps. Before we know it, we come hurtling back through the lives of those that the ‘Horror in Clay’ has touched and disturbed, catching up on the fates of each the cast...
The play is staged very closely, with the small audience mere feet from the singular cast, their entering to find Sabbaton seemingly dozing, awaiting impervious to their arrival. With a bang—quite literally—Sabbaton stirs into action and is into the first of his sanity-deprived characters. From here, it is a fifty-minute tumble through near insanity into the utter absence of sanity. It is though, not a staging for the uninitiated, the audience needing to have an understanding of Lovecraft’s short story if it is grasp the finer points of the author’s intent. Fortunately for the aware, Sabbaton brings The Call of Cthulhu to life most effectively, ably supported by a well put together soundscape that works to open up the horror beyond the stage to somewhere behind the audience—especially during Legrasse’s assault on the cult.
Engrossing from start to finish, Sabbaton’s staging of The Call of Cthulhu is a blisteringly wrought affair, pleasingly focusing upon the effects of ‘Cthulhu’ and the Mythos, rather than directly on ‘Cthulhu’ and the Mythos.