John Middleton is Donald Wandrei in “Unspeakable Things”
photo by Richard Fleischman
There’s one weekend left in the run of “Unspeakable Things” at Red Eye Theater. The story looks into the “strange, twisted, and horrific minds of Donald and Howard Wandrei; St. Paul, Minnesota natives and pioneers in the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.” Here’s what the critics are saying:
Events and thoughts between the 1930s and 1970s stream out of sequence from Donald’s subconscious, hence onto the stage. Program notes call the play “more allegory than biography,” which seems to excuse not relating sufficient family history and the deeper roots of Donald’s phobias. General banter about fellow fantasy writer, H.P. Lovecraft, sibling rivalry with Howard (a vibrant Joey Ford), and lost love, waft about but don’t ultimately cohere.
However, what is achieved is a hypnotic movement piece that uses this banter as an artistic springboard. The ensemble is as crisply impeccable as the script is vague. Ryan Hill has directed his actors to be demonic manifestations of Donald’s tortured memory, converging on him at times with precisely choreographed menace.
Unspeakable Things is first and foremost a triumph of mood. The Monday night audience intially wanted to laugh at Middleton’s writerly idiosyncracies, but quickly fell hushed as details about Donald’s life emerged and surreal encounters mounted. An eerie but varied soundtrack seamlessly woven together by sound designer Tim Donohue underlines the sense of horror Donald feels at the lost opportunities and insurmountable limitations of his existence. Strange thumpings sound from doors, cupboards, and walls, and sometimes ghosts emerge to haunt the ashen-faced writer. Middleton, not particularly dynamic but consistently watchable, anchors a focused cast.
I don’t envy any company that sets about to create work tied to the history and limitations of a single person and to imbue it with an accessible meaning, especially when the person in question is a writer. As any writer can tell you, there is nothing more painful and tedious than a writer not writing, which is partially why so many writers drink; it gives us something to do.
Within those thematic limitations, the paranoia and depression is physically well manifested by the ensemble who, when they are flitting about the stage or working together in close proximity, were quite spellbinding. Sandbox received a $10,000 grant from the Metropolitan Regional Art Council for Unspeakable Things and the set and sound design had obviously benefited, becoming complex and baroque, but in spite of all that, the best bits of the play came from pickle jars, crumpled paper and cardboard boxes.
The elliptical structure, with memories repeating, sometimes with additional details or just in a completely different form, allows for insight into the fractured lives of the characters. It does not, however, completely hold one’s attention, especially near the end. The play could have ceased anywhere in the last 25 minutes, as there was no ultimate conflict to resolve or secret to reveal.
Unspeakable Things is far from perfect — it most definitely feels like a piece still in progress — but there’s so much that is interesting here (and in the related works that have been completed, including an EP of songs inspired by the brothers’ lives and creations) that there is hopefully more to be seen in the future.