Thriller on Fourth Street: Dan Bianchi’s Radiotheatre Does Poe and Lovecraft

Nothing to see here

Alfred Gingold as H.P. Lovecraft. (Courtesy Dan Bianchi)

Ghoulish youths haunt the alleys of Red Hook. The waterfront district is “a maze of hybrid squalor,” “a babel of sound and filth,” infested by “a dread crew of sentient loathsomeness.” South Brooklyn has changed somewhat since 1925, when H.P. Lovecraft wrote “The Horror at Red Hook,” but the long-dead author seems to have grasped something about the essential nature of a visit to Ikea.

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But just what does “sentient loathsomeness” look like? How, precisely, might someone translate Lovecraft’s peculiar brand of weird horror to the stage? Dan Bianchi found a solution: he lets his audience do the work for him.

The founder and driving force behind a company called RadioTheatre, Mr. Bianchi has been producing aural adaptations of weird classics since 2004. On April 19, he presents the third installment in his H.P. Lovecraft festival, produced at the Kraine Theater in collaboration with the Horse Trade Theater Group; it runs through June 24. By dispensing with visuals, he has found a way to stage ambitious work that is nimble, cheap and popular. In an Off-Off-Broadway scene where most companies are content to produce a show a year, RadioTheatre averages more than six. His group has, Mr. Bianchi said, “a roadie mentality.”

Last week, The Observer sat down at the Stillwater Bar & Grill, on Fourth Street, with Mr. Bianchi, actor Frank Zilinyi and sound engineer Wes Shippee. Over beer, disco fries and fried potato skins, the team behind RadioTheatre laid out its philosophy. Although they concede that their name may suggest nostalgia—“It’s the 1940s and there’s a guy someplace with coconut shells,” as Mr. Zilinyi put it—they are not nostalgists.

“I’m not trying to get a recreation of what it looked like in a 1940s studio,” Mr. Bianchi said. “That’s a museum piece. I’m trying to recreate the experience people had of sitting in the dark, listening to their radio.”

Mr. Bianchi is big and grizzled and looks a bit like Jeff Bridges. His website identifies him as “the most produced living writer in NYC.” (Take that, Neil Simon!) He is disdainful of overblown Hollywood movies and Broadway plays, and speaks with the confidence of a man who, in the small world of New York radio theater, is an undisputed king. To Erez Ziv, Horse Trade’s managing director, he is “a never-ending fountain of ideas,” and “a time capsule come to life.” Heidi Grumelot, the company’s artistic director, described him as “a big teddy bear.”

“He can come across a little bit gruff, I guess, like grr!” she said. “But he’s a total sweetheart.”

Since the 1970s, Mr. Bianchi has worked as a composer, visual artist and all-around theatrical dynamo. After a sojourn in Hollywood, he returned to New York a decade ago to find a shrunken indie theater scene, financially restricted to small casts, talky scripts and sets, he said, “that looked like the Little Rascals made it in their back yard.”

“The kind of shows I used to do,” he said, “I had 28 people on stage, three story sets, a live band and a projection screen. That’s Spider-Man nowadays.”

Looking for a cheap way to escape the morass of Off-Off anonymity, he seized on sound. “In most Off-Off-Broadway houses,” he said, “sound is usually the broken CD player and two speakers that don’t work. So I said, ‘O.K., we’re gonna do sound.’”

Since RadioTheatre’s first effort in 2004, a show called Madhouse, he has produced a range of classics—Frankenstein, King Kong, Sundays With Poe—refining his technique but keeping the format the same: actors at music stands speaking directly to the audience, backed up by lush orchestral scores and elaborate sound effects. It’s as though he took a cue from Rod Serling’s The Zero Hour, a 1970s radio show whose motto was “Rest your eyes. Engage your imagination.”

Mr. Zilinyi knows a show is working when he sees that most of the audience is listening with eyes closed. “They’re sitting out there making the scenes in their heads,” he said, “and you know that you’ve got 30 or 40 different shows going on at the same time.”

All the talk of imagination calls to mind children’s theater, but though some of their work is kid-friendly—like King Kong, which Mr. Bianchi is preparing for Sunday matinees in Times Square—shows like the upcoming Naughty Victorians, adapted from 19th-century erotica, are decidedly R rated. If this all sounds boring, you are either too young or too old.

“If someone walks out of our show in the first 10 minutes,” said Mr. Bianchi, “it’s usually a 22-year-old. Ask them to use their imagination to provide the visuals? Either they don’t know how, or they can’t be bothered.”

Gothic horror writing, so reliant on atmosphere, narration and description, is difficult to adapt for stage or screen without succumbing to camp. Adapting Lovecraft is nearly impossible. A Providence native who died at 46, he was a straight-laced, boring man who lived with two aged aunts. Both parents spent time in institutions, and he lived his life in fear of insanity—an anxiety manifested in his stories, whose heroes are routinely driven to madness by the sight of unspeakable horror.

Lovecraft’s nightmarish dreamscapes, his indescribable monsters, and his ever-expanding cast of ancient gods—charming tentacle beasts like Cthulhu, Yig and Nyarlathotep—invariably lose their power as soon as they are made visual.

“Even in Hollywood,” said Mr. Bianchi, “with all the CGI and the effects that they can do nowadays—”

“You can’t do it justice,” said Mr. Zilinyi.

“It looks cheesy or stupid or cheap or whatever. But when it’s left to the imagination, that’s when people go, ‘Whooooa.’”

“It’s truly chilling.”

Thriller on Fourth Street: Dan Bianchi’s Radiotheatre Does Poe and Lovecraft