Who Goes There? or The Things From Another World | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Who Goes There? or The Things From Another World


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Organic Theater Company

Even as its former leader Stuart Gordon satisfies his jones for sci-fi and fantasy by directing movies like the current Fortress, the Organic Theater Company seeks to reclaim the popularity it once enjoyed by producing imagination-stretching thrillers in the vein Gordon opened when he brought Organic to Chicago some 20 years ago. In the wake of the company's successful (and very well done) version of Clive Barker's terror tale In the Flesh comes Who Goes There? or The Things From Another World, based on John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novelette Who Goes There? But the new show, though well acted in key roles and occasionally suspenseful, lacks the captivating tension that In the Flesh generated. Instead it gets bogged down in tedious verbal exposition and laughable effects, coming across like a B-movie parody rather than the provocative fable it's intended to be.

On the surface, the Barker and Campbell stories are similar: both concern fateful (and fatal) encounters between rationally skeptical human beings and otherworldly monsters with a talent for metamorphosis and mental telepathy. In the Flesh tells of a half-human demon in a British jail; Campbell's Thing is an alien intruder trapped in Antarctic ice for 20 million years, until a team of American scientists on a polar expedition revive it. Before it's finally destroyed with a makeshift electric harpoon, the three-eyed, tentacle-armed, superintelligent creature seeks to survive and spread by absorbing and then turning itself into sled dogs, cows, and the scientists themselves; since its cells are intelligent, it can replicate itself infinitely in various life forms and so threatens to literally take over the earth. Trying to psych out this insidious antagonist, the intrepid Americans wrestle with paranoid suspicion: Is the person next to me really an alien invader? each must ask. And am I one myself?

The original story--written before Campbell made his mark as the influential editor of Astounding Stories (later Analog Science Fact/Fiction)--is a gritty minor masterpiece that justifies its outlandish plot with data from biochemistry, physics, meteorology, psychology, and even telepathy (whose scientific credibility is defended with a reference to a professor at Duke University, where Campbell studied). Solid as science fiction, it's also an engrossing detective story (the climax recalls one of those scenes in which the sleuth explains the crime to the assembled suspects), a hard-boiled study of human behavior under stress in the Jack London/Ernest Hemingway mold, a philosophical discourse on the diversity of creation (is the monster evil or "another example of Nature's wonderful adaptability"?), and a political allegory about creeping communism, in which a collectivist creature that exists by absorbing other beings is defeated by a democratic band of cranky individualists. Neither of the story's two movie versions have done it justice: Howard Hawks's 1951 film turned the shape-altering monster into a Karloffian "supercarrot" whose main weapon was brute strength, while John Carpenter's 1982 effort emphasized slimy special effects at the expense of dramatic texture.

Playwright Steve Pickering, who also coauthored In the Flesh, has sought to restore much of Campbell's original flavor while making significant contributions of his own. He's preserved the 1930s setting (radio, not TV, is a basic referent, and atomic power the source of mystified wonder), and though he's dumped the boy-girl byplay of Hawks's movie he's also turned Campbell's all-male cast into a gender-integrated crew, suggesting sexual antagonism when a male scientist accuses a female opponent of getting too "personal." He's also inserted some effective comic relief while maintaining a general grim seriousness of tone; it falters only at the end, when a preachy epitaph comes perilously close to camp put-on.

The script's strongest suit is also the production's: the scenes of restrained suspense, as the scientists bicker among themselves out of fear and suspicion. Under Jeff Neal's direction, these sequences are potently acted by the 12-member cast, with particularly strong characterizations coming from Ned Mochel as the rugged visionary McReady, Timothy Jenkins as the sardonic Van Wall, Steve Cinabro as the lumbering lug of a cook Kinner, and especially the superb Jamie Pachino as Norris, the crew's Cassandra, who futilely warns against reviving the Thing. (Making Norris a woman is a clever touch: the male scientists find it easy to dismiss her advice, especially since her only evidence is nightmares--which turn out to be the Thing's psychic projections.)

But too often the crew's bickering turns into melodramatic shouting matches whose chaos seems contrived. (Phil Ridarelli's over-the-top hysteria as the arrogant scientist Blair is especially tiresome.) And when the Thing finally reveals itself after long passages of gruesome description--well, an actor with a light bulb in his mouth just doesn't cut it. (Especially when the light bulb falls out.)

Bill Sadlick and Paul Foster's set, lit by Foster, is an initially interesting depiction of a cabin surrounded by icy wastes, but it soon becomes boringly static without ever achieving claustrophobia. Sound designer Jeff Webb does all he can to create an eerie atmosphere, with the whooshing of wind, the howling of dogs, the alien's unearthly shrieks, and the thundering choral forces of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. But as with Sean Devine and Clay Taylor's special effects, we soon become too aware of the show's technical limitations to find it scary. Where Clive Barker's mythic horror style well suited In the Flesh to the stage, the explicit detail of Campbell's classic defies Organic's low-budget, low-tech theatricalization, which relies on comically cheap visual gimmicks augmented by long streams of verbal description. "You talk too much," snarls one stressed-out character to the others in the middle of yet another bout of scientific speculation; the audience is likely to agree.

I'd like to correct an error in my September 17 review of David Mamet's Oleanna. The play's 1992 New York run was at the off-Broadway Orpheum Theatre, not on Broadway as I stated.

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