The worst possible place to be when a monster shows up is inside a submarine. Horny teens at a cabin in the woods are lucky compared to the nautical chumps stuck on board a German U-Boat in Nat Cassidy’s play The Temple, or, Lebensraum. These unlucky sailors are trapped beneath the sea, harrowed by Allied Destroyers, and sealed inside a pressurized metal coffin with Lovecraftian horrors. The kids at Crystal Lake should count their blessings!
The Temple, or, Lebensraum is loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft story The Temple which is about a submarine crew that encounters an inhuman city on the floor of the ocean. This adaptation deviates in many ways, including shifting the time period from World War 1 to WWII. The Lovecraftian supernatural elements remain, but the play is really an exploration of the common men who served in the German military during World War II. The crew of this U-boat are mostly ordinary fellows; some are “Just following orders”, others are motivated by the traumatic aftermath of World War I, but at least one is a genuine Nazi who is doing his best to serve the Fatherland.
The play is an attempt to get inside their heads, and show a nuanced view of ordinary men who history views as “The Bad Guys”. Lovecraft wrote the original story before WWII, but this play has the complication of hindsight. The characters are, objectively, The Bad Guys. Early in the show they sink a merchant ship, then open fire on the lifeboats, and before the first act is through they’re on their way to attack another civilian target.
All of the characters have their own sub plot, and there are several twists that reveal they aren’t as bad as they seem. However, these back stories and paradigm shifts are revealed in the second act, which means that most of the play is about a U-Boat crew who are, apparently, content with their murderous mission.
The Lovecraftian aspects of the story are very slight. Halfway through the first act, a mysterious stowaway appears, carrying an unfathomable eldritch idol. Lovecraft fans will be quick to understand what’s happening, but the crew doesn’t seem to read much weird science, and is surprisingly nonchalant about this bizarre turn of events.
The stowaway disappears for most of the play, and is hardly mentioned thereafter. When strange things begin happening, the crew never seem to be concerned about their uncanny stowaway, and they blatantly supernatural events. Meanwhile, the audience spends the second half of the show keenly aware that an inhuman being is lurking somewhere on the submarine, and that mystical shenanigans are afoot. Horror fans will have to wait almost the entire play before the Lovecraftian influences take center stage.
Along the way, the show does an effective job of imparting the mundane horrors of life on board a submarine. Slimy sea monsters aren’t needed to establish a sense of unpleasantness on the hot, cramped, humid U-boat. Playwright Nat Cassidy’s dialog describes the omnipresent mushiness, and the smell of men and machinery sharing a limited supply of recycled air (And just one toilet).
Submarines are also quite noisy. The sound effects are particularly important in establishing the setting, and in conveying what is happening offstage. The sounds (Designed by Jeanne Travis) are especially effective after the U-Boat is damaged in a conflict, and the audience hears the cries of dying men trapped in other sections of the sub.
The show is staged in “Theater in the round” with the audience seated on all sides of the stage. Sandy Yaklin’s set is a gray, dingy purgatory that suits the tone of the piece. It also includes practical features like a periscope that slides up and down, and lighting sources that the actors can pick up and carry around with them on the set.
The ensemble is a believable team, each suited to the quirks of their characters, but Matthew Trumble stands out among them. He begins the show as the sweetest little Nazi in the whole Reich, but quickly becomes a menacing villain whose creepiness is partially supernatural, but also stems from real-life Nazi intimidation tactics.
The Temple Or Lebensraum has several problematic issues with pacing. Characters are unsympathetic for the first half of the story, and the supernatural aspects of the plot are spaced far apart. Lovecraft fans will be happy to see one of his lesser stories brought to life, but the weird science themes are just there for flavor. The true goal of the show is to explore the lives of men who fought for the wrong side of a war. The Temple Or Lebensraum does this admirably, albeit at a deliberate pace. It is playing at The Brick in Brooklyn through February 28th.