In a theatrical series called Art of the Tale, expert storyteller Odds Bodkin is presenting five programs of epics, romances, legends, and children’s stories at Lincoln Center through December. In the spirit of the current season, he is now telling Heartpounders: Halloween Horror For Adults, playing through October 27 The Clark Theater, Lincoln Center’s black box space.
As he sits down on the floor-level stage, Bodkin — an imposing presence with his muscular body and square jaw — puts his mouth to one microphone and his 12-string guitar to another and advises us to picture his stories in our mind’s eye. And what tools he has to help us paint that picture! He effortlessly (or so it appears) creates high winds and pounding hooves with his voice, setting the scene for the first story, “The Storm Breeder,” in which a bad-tempered man called Peter Rugg tempts fate and ends up dooming himself to the curse of forever fleeing a wicked storm. In a mellifluous near-whisper, Bodkin then becomes the timid narrator of the story, later turning into a host of eccentric New Englanders from a surly toll collector to the ghoulish Rugg himself. All the while, Bodkin provides a stirring underscore to the action on his guitar.
The title of the show specifies that these are horror stories “for adults,” but they are not of the R-rated, slasher flick variety. More likely, they are labeled as being for adults because they demand a certain sophistication from the listener and a willingness to accept a different kind of horror story than what we’re used to. (Two of the stories are foreign folk tales.) Some kids might not find them very scary at all; unlike old favorites such as the one about the escaped convict with the hook who stalks teenagers or the story of the killer who terrorizes the babysitter via the upstairs phone, these tales don’t usually build in the traditional way. In “The Storm Breeder,” for instance, we’re informed early in the story that Rugg is an earthbound spirit, which makes the climax less than climactic. Bodkin really uses this opening yarn more as an example of what he means by the “art of the tale.” It is the longest of the three Heartpounders, sports the most characters, and features some of his more impressive sound effects; essentially, he’s showing us what he can do. This is a very engaging story, even if it isn’t as chilling as some of the ghost stories commonly told around a campfire.
These stories also prey upon fears better best known to adults. Bodkin’s second narrative, called “The Flesh Twisters,” offers a subtextual message about the way that parents come to be afraid of their own children as they grow. This Chinese version of the well-known werewolf legend — here the monsters are panthers, and, boy, does Bodkin know how to make a fearsome panther growl! — concerns a town that is being terrorized by two such beasts. They eventually come for the old man who is the protagonist of the story and he is horrified to discover their true identity. Bodkin plays Asian themes on an alto recorder but, because he cannot speak and play at the same time, music has a smaller role in this tale. It’s a good example of how he effectively uses silence to create tension: The quiet between the shrill recorder passages makes the old man’s fear palpable.
The final story, “The Devil’s Skin,” is the most unsettling. By this point in the evening (which lasts about an hour and a half), the blue hue of the large blank screen behind Bodkin has turned to black and an increasingly claustrophobic feeling settles upon the space. The tale concerns a poor and feeble widower who discovers gold and the hard-hearted village priest who covets it. Another one that will probably register more strongly with adults, it is about how greed can lead people to unconscionable actions — and how those actions can lead to terrifying consequences for the perpetrator. The feeble man’s fright and the priest’s painful undoing, which Bodkin vocally creates against the backdrop of some excellent music played on a modal 12-string guitar, is nearly heart-stopping
Bodkin has several other narrative surprises on his upcoming schedule at Lincoln Center. They are The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, What a Woman Desires Most: Three Tales of Love, The Winter Cherries: Tales for Christmas and Chanukah, and Storyblast! Family Matinee Concerts.