The cosmic horror stories of American writer H.P. Lovecraft have carved out a sizable niche in the ecosystem of contemporary hipdom, inspiring countless paintings, death metal songs, computer games, parodies, and quite a few ingenious ski masks. And no wonder, really; hinting of dreadful elder gods poised to devour humanity, they perfectly convey a certain modern mood: science, while supporting no credible sense of salvation, has revealed innumerable rather disgusting truths about existence (“90 per cent of our cells are bacteria? Ewww!”). And the image of elder gods preying on humanity gibes well with a common perception that we live our lives parasitized by distant, vampirical elites (We’re looking at you, one-percenters).
Lovecraft's rambling legendarium might seem unwieldy subject matter for a play, but Quasimondo’s uncanny knack for distilling complex ideas into rich and vivid imagery raises hopes, and Love and Cthulhu does not disappoint. Fans will find their favorite tropes: creepy cultists, hints of hidden terrors, and the gradual descent of rational men and women into gibbering madness. The show begins with a rickety elevator ride to Miskatonic University (the visibly uncomfortable fellow who opens the door for us turns out to be the new dean), where the famed medieval manuscript The Necronomicon has recently been acquired. And, as any fan of the Evil Dead movies knows, this is not a good thing at all; the nasty tome, more than telling terrible secrets, serves as a gateway to dimensions of eldrich terror and sheer insanity.
With dialog, dance and some fabulously grotesque giant puppets (by Andrew Parchman, Dawn Swartz, Bridget Cookson, and Mike Petit), the stories’ fevered visions come to life. An antique piano’s tortured strings provide a suitable score of alien frequencies (while evoking John Cage’s modified pianos). The show follows the MU faculty in a series of vignettes, covering such Lovecraftian themes as Dagon, the Mi-go, Herbert West, reanimator, the Mountains of Madness, and of course, everybody’s favorite tentacled monstrosity, portrayed humorously as a cute little plush puppet with a decidedly sinister side.
But wait—there’s more. This is, after all, Love and Cthulhu, opening on Valentine’s Day. The juxtaposition seems funny, but there is historical precedent. In the early centuries CE, gnostic sects flourished among the hipsters of the ancient world, teaching of a secret understanding of the universe, that the gods are not benign, but evil, holding our delectable souls as prisoners or worse, as cattle. Then, in the classic Love in the Western World, historian Denis de Rougemont convincingly argued that our uniquely Western ideas about romantic love as suffering and salvation, doom and destiny, came directly from those Medieval hipsters, the Troubadors of Provence—who just happened to be hobnobbing with the Cathars, the last extent gnostics in Europe. Love. And Cthulhu. What goes around comes around. Accordingly, the play traces the paths of several romantic couples as they brave the forbidden—if mostly to bad ends.
For all that, it still seem like a bit of a joke, and some of the scenes, especially the early talky exposition, flagrantly flirt with camp. But while they’re clearly trying to play it straight, there’s no denying that this is all terribly fun. It’s hard to know how else to take a scene of a young woman being molested in her bathtub by a glutinous monstrosity evidently constructed out of beach balls and plastic wrap; or a dance in which a woman is pursued by a twelve-foot dragon-like puppet with a suggestively genitalia-like maw and tongue. An episode of an Arctic expedition really conveys the harrowing risks early explorers took in their search for knowledge, and there’s a dance between an astronomer and a biologist that, were it not over-long, would be quite moving. One of the best scenes shows a boozy faculty party where the guest speaker is none other than Nyarlathotep (a.k.a. “the Crawling Chaos”) in his canonical guise as a magician. His parlor magic devolves into a funny/eerie danse macabre climaxing in a grotesque alien apparition. Similarly effective is the revelation that certain winged inhabitants of Pluto (“Yuggoth” in the vernacular) are willing to take humans on interplanetary voyages, if we but submit to the simple, painless expedient of having our brain removed and packed for transport. Again, the stories are at once ludicrous, horrible—and kind of awesome. The show’s concluding tableau—a final visual coup de grace from director Brian Rott— shows a pair of lovers on a beach, with children playing in the rippling waves, while the monstrous figure of Cthulu himself towers over them. It’s not really that hard to see our lives in this image. We try to scrape out happiness despite the knowledge of so many horrible things happening in the world: murderous regimes slaughtering their people; or sects of bigots bent on imposing their will on us; or mass species extinction and massive industrial catastrophes, sacrifices for our way of life. It might as well be the Deep Horizon oil rig looming over the scene; just thinking about it could drive one mad.
The artists of Quasimondo could benefit from remembering that the best scares come from things half-seen, and use more darkness, rather than exposing their constructions to sobering light. The opening night was plagued by numerous technical glitches, leading to pauses a pregnant shoggoth could easily shuffle through, extending the run time to a truly unholy three hours. Even so—and despite some corny dialog and flat characterizations that all-too-accurately echo their source material—when it gets up and running, Love and Cthulu strikes home with enough memorable, downright bizarre imagery to make it the most original show to hit town in a long time. It’s frankly amazing that anyone would attempt to stage such grand material, especially with such slender means as the Quasimondo kids have. But, as they seem intent on proving, there’s nowhere, absolutely nowhere, the theatrical imagination can’t take us.
Love and Cthulu
by The Quasimondo
Thursday- Saturday through March Ist, 8:00
Sunday February 23rd, 2:00
The Milwaukee Fortress
100 A East Pleasant Street
Milwaukee, WI 53212
Tickets: $15 for Adults, $12 for Students.
contact (717) 34 Quasi or firstname.lastname@example.org
“Performance takes place on the 4th floor and some walking is involved. Please contact if you need assistance with mobility.”
“MATURE CONTENT WARNING: Not recommended for squeamish or immature audiences.”