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HORROR WITH DEPTH: ‘Wendigo’ maximizes gore, good performances and strong writing

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For something a little off-beat, that will definitely appeal to novice theatre-going young men (in other words a date night that works for both of you), Wendigo is a good choice. The script is strong, the performances have depth, and the blood is gory enough to make you feel queasy. I would call it a success.

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Chase Harrison’s original script for “Wendigo” is the latest offering of the Browncoat Pub and Theatre’s season of “Amazing Wonder Stories!”  For fans of horror films and ghost stories, this fits the bill as a must-see.

wendigoStructured like a ‘70s or ‘80s horror film, the show opens with four friends at a hunting cabin on top of a mountain for a weekend of male bonding. They are miles from civilization with a cooler full of beer and loaded guns—so what could go wrong?

Scott (Jamie Davenport) has some catching up to do with his friends, since he has been deployed in Iraq. Home at last he is trying to reconnect, which is part of what this weekend is supposed to be about. He is haunted by his perceived failures and strung tightly with the tension of trying to readjust to life stateside. His childhood friends don’t seem to understand the gravity of the world they live in and he is baffled.

Jackie (Blake Howard) is trying to keep the peace and smooth things along between everyone. Let’s face it: Ben (Tony Choufani) is sweet, kind and not as macho as his friends.  He is the perfect foil to Pete (Phill Antonino), the brash, brazen, multiply divorced, delightful asshole. In other words, it’s just a group of guys who drink beer and avoid their demons.

Too bad Scott has to go and ruin it by telling the story of the Wendigo: a formerly human creature that has grown to super-human proportions and now hunts everything, including people. Anyone who’s attacked and lives to commit an act of cannibalism will become a Wendigo, too. Ben (much like me) is easily frightened by the incredibly disturbing story that is made all the more freaky by Davenport’s low, deep, convincing delivery. His intensity is unnerving. I’m with Choufani on this: He shuts down the teasing from his friends with a quiet but forceful reminder that he does their taxes. Power comes in different sources.

This is a bloody, gory horror show about terrors real and perceived. There is fake blood and a few visual moments that made my stomach turn, which is exactly what should happen in this show. The ensemble have achieved a wonderful intensity that is compelling—even for someone who isn’t the target audience for horror films.

Adding the internal struggle of the returned vet deepens the meaning and relevance of “Wendigo.” But the real helplessness that these guys have in many aspects of their lives is mirrored here. When Pete’s friends try to tend to wounds, the first responder/mother in me kept thinking, Lay him flat and get his airway open.   

Antonino as Wendigo is frightening and believable. He has carved out a niche for himself playing bad guys, but he has a range and can play sympathetic characters very well. I think it is that which deepens the horror of what he can show us: His bravado is just armor for something much more gentle than anyone sees.

Howard as Jackie is that guy everyone knows, likes and is frustrated by. “Is there a straight answer to this question? Which one of us are you lying to? What the hell is this ‘keep the peace’ bullshit?” These are questions I ask myself when dealing with Jackies of the world, and Howard nails it. He pushes every button with a grin and a gulp of beer.

But it is Davenport’s internal struggle that drives the story. Davenport is the perfect casting choice for this character. He is quiet, brooding, intense, and committed without being melodramatic.

The soundtrack for the show was composed by Brennan Scott, and it really heightens the experience, by intensifying the fear associated with the sightings of the Wendigo. It is subtle but effective. Essentially, the Wendigo is a sound he has created for the audience (except when it gets up off the couch and hisses). It’s quite a responsibility to create that image firmly in the audience’s minds without ever showing them a picture.

Harrison’s only previously produced play was “Herbert West: Re-Animator” at TheatreNOW, which he also directed. The leap forward in both writing and directing between the two productions is remarkable. His writing reveals a much stronger, believable dialogue, and it’s not in place merely to advance the plot. It also entertains and deepens the connections between the characters and audience. A stronger understanding of plot development, arc and some of the key tools (like foreshadowing) are all evident in his script.  Combined with strong performances, the writing moves the audience to moments of awe, revulsion and concern. It’s good work.

Harrison has also made a major leap forward under direction. He uses more of the space, creates tension and formulates better blocking. The story and performances aside, it’s really great to see his artistic growth. Part of what makes Wilmington’s theatre scene so fascinating is the opportunity to watch artists grow and mature.

For something a little off-beat, that will definitely appeal to novice theatre-going young men (in other words a date night that works for both of you), Wendigo is a good choice. The script is strong, the performances have depth, and the blood is gory enough to make you feel queasy. I would call it a success.

Thurs.-Sat., July 20-25, 20-31, Aug. 1-2, 8 p.m.; 5 p.m. matinees
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace St. • Tickets: $10-$15

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