Stage Review: Courting Vampires – plus Undead Meataphor Discussion

This is the last weekend to see the Boston Court Theatre’s premiere production of Courting Vampires, a  play by Laura Schellhardt. I mentioned the play previously because I moderated a panel after the Thursday, May 21 performance, which featured guests David Ska (V is for Vampire) and Del Howison (Dark Delicacies). If you haven’t made it out yet, you really should give this one a chance. It’s not quite what you expect when you think of a “vampire play,” which is to say, it’s not an outright genre piece but rather a drama that uses its vampiric element for metaphoric purpose.

In a sense, Schellhardt feels more like a stylized courtroom drama. The main character, Rill, addresses the audience while defending herself for some action she has committed, offering exhibits (scenes from the past) to explain her motivations. We learn that her younger sister, Nina, contracted a fatal blood disease after a one-night stand in a graveyard, and Rill becomes convinced that the carrier of the disease was a vampire.

Divided into two acts, Courting Vampires gets off to a slow start as Rill introduces herself and her sister and the men in their lives (all of whom are played by one actor, indicating a connection between them). Rill lays the foundation in the manner of a defense attorney in a series of disjointed vignettes that the audience has to hope will eventually tie together. As the vampire element is introduced, the play sharpens its focus, and the second act is reasonably engrossing, with Rill turning the tables on her sister’s seducer.

Schellhardt plays a tricky gambit. Rill is presented as an extremely uptight character, who represses her emotions. We’re supposed to sense them lurking underneath; this might work in a film where closeups can reveal flickers of feeling, but on stage we see mostly the tension and repression, not so much of the vulnerable inner core. With Nina somewhat of an airhead, and most of the men either ineffectual, crazy, a predatory, the cast don’t offer any easy audience identification figures.

Fortunately, the play engages us with a sense of humor in its dialogue, which is filled with clever wordplay. And the irony of Rill’s deliberate metamorphosis – literally letting her hair down as she goes about seducing the seducer – registers powerfully, leading up to a gripping climax.

One could make an argument that Courting Vampires is not about vampires at all. The theme is introduced through a book that Nina had as a child – which Rill buried in the back yard, digging it up only when her sister’s medical condition sent her searching for some kind of explanation. Although Rill defends herself as if she were acting rationally, we in the audience realize that her inability to cope with her sister’s condition has sent her into a kind of infantile regression, seeking answers in fairy tales and folklore because real life is just too upsetting to face directly.

Adding to this is the fact that, besides being performed by the same actor, each of the male characters (including Rill and Nina’s father) displays some element of the “vampire,” provoking us to wonder whether they are not all just facets of Rill’s perception of men. At the end, when she attacks the vampire, she is in a sense killing daddy as much as anything else.

Boston Court’s production, directed by Jessica Kubansky, makes excellent use of the 99-seat theatre’s space. The floor is a grid of squares, each one a trap door which can be opened to reveal props that suggest setting; in one case, they even provide a shallow grave. Props and set pieces are wheeled on and off with sharp timing, and the spare settings are augmented with projections – sometimes suggesting locations, sometimes hinting at a characters’ frame of mind (such as the fireworks display against which we see Nina shadow boxing at the beginning).

I neglected to record the panel I moderated after the performance, so I cannot transcribe it verbatim. Our topic was “The Undead Metaphor,” a look at how the image of the vampire had changed from Victorian times to the present day.

I began by paraphrasing a bit from David Skal: that the vampire is an elastic metaphor that can be stretched to fit many meanings. Skal amplified the point by stating that the vampire is sort of the ultimate politician, who can transform himself into all things for all people.

Del Howison talked about the stages in the evolution of the vampire, which he divided into four: the folkloric version, the Victorian version, the film and television version from the 20th century, and the 21st century “tween” version, as examplified by TWILIGHT. Amusingly, Del noted that many of the customers in his bookstore who buy the TWILIGHT books are not teenagers but are middle-aged women.

Eventually we took questions from the audience. The most memorable came from one gentleman who noticed that the play’s story could have been presented without the vampire element; he asked whether the playwrite had conceived her script as a straight drama and then added the vampires.

I couldn’t answer the question directly, as I don’t know how the author wrote Courting Vampires. Instead, I pointed out that, on a basic commercial level, genre elements help sell a story to an audience that might not otherwise be interested. (Del jumped in asking rhetorically how many people would get excited about a play about “two sisters and one of them has AIDS).

I took the thought further. Riffing off Skal’s notion of the vampire metaphor, I suggested that such a play as Del described might be great, but it would always be one thing, and the author would more or less tell you what it was. By using the vampire as a metaphor, Courting Vampires becomes more open to interpretation, which can change over time as our image of the vampire changes.

Earlier, when Skal was talking about how we use vampires to “process” our thoughts on difficult subjects like mortality, I had been inspired with my thought (cited in the review above) that Rill is processing her grief by reverting to a child-like belief in vampires. I think this is the key reason for the inclusion of the vampire element in the play. Since then, a couple people associated with the play have indicated that we understood the play’s intentions better than the critics who have reviewed it in mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times.

I’m not citing this to indicate how brilliant we were that night. Rather, I’m happy with the way the panel turned out. The “Undead Metaphor” topic is an interesting one, but I had more or less covered it in a 1994 issue of Imagi-Movies magazine, including an interview with Skal, and I was worried that we might simply end up saying the same things over again. Instead, the process of moderating the panel actually provoked some new thought, at least in me.

When the lights first went up after the play had ended, I was not quite sure what to make of Courting Vampires. I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to say about it, yet somehow the discussion with Skal and Howison lead to an interpretation that pleased the the people working on it. I couldn’t have asked for a better result.