About to wind up its debut run at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, The Vampire’s Puppet is a one-act play with an intriguing premise that mixes elements of Interview with the Vampire and Dracula. As in the former, a human (in this case a young woman) is interviewing a vampire; as in the later, the vampire is playing host to his guest in his ancestral abode, a role which includes doing the cooking – an impressive skill for someone with no appetite for conventional food. There is even a touch of Poe in a suggestion that the walls of this dwelling are imbued with the spirit of his family, as if the weight of that history has some inexplicable hold over him, psychologically and/or psychically.
What’s most interesting about the relationship that develops is that the ancient bloodsucker, having long sequestered himself for reasons he will gradually reveal, has survived into the 21st century with all the melodramatic mannerisms and Gothic affectations of a traditional vampire intact, while his interviewer comes across as a slightly superficial modern woman (not some Goth-girl with a profound interest in the undead, she simply thinks the interview will make her famous). Consequently, though the two may be speaking the same language, they are on different wave lengths, talking to each other but not necessarily truly understanding one another.
Once this premise is set in motion, the play follows the unfolding relationship, as the vampire narrates his history, revealing depths of pain that could literally last an eternity and mocking the interviewer’s attempts to match or empathize with his tale. What’s really taking place is a slow-burn seduction, with the vampire’s psychic powers remotely stimulating the interviewer to sexual arousal – an experience she attributes to strange dreams, unaware of exactly what he is doing to her.
As interesting as this is, the story is not really plot driven, and at a certain point one starts to wonder where it is headed. The obvious power imbalance raises questions: the vampire could simply overpower his victim immediately; presumably, he prefers cat-and-mouse manipulation for his own amusement. Moreover, his telekinetic ability to manipulate her very movements (hence the “vampire’s puppet” of the title) reduces her character to a sexual plaything.
Or so it seems….
There is actually more going on beneath the surface, with last-minute developments that head in an unexpected direction. It’s a clever twist, but the play might have been better served by a little more foreshadowing. Chekhov’s famous dictum (“If you load a gun in the first act, you must fire it in the third”) presumes that the gun has been loaded.
In any case, the play has been nicely realized within the confines of ZJU’s blank, black theatre, which leaves the setting to our imagination so that we must focus attention on the characters. The action is cleverly staged, with the vampire’s virtually offscreen presence revealed by the appearance of his hand around first one doorway and then another as he is magically moving from one place to another while manipulating the interviewer’s midnight ecstasy. (To be clear, this is PG-13 stuff with no actual nudity, just a very heavy layer of sexuality.) There’s even some pretty exciting action that ends the play with a bit of flash and a figurative bang.
With no scenery, all eyes our on the actors, who carry the show. Chris Levine (who also scripted) gets the meatier role. Sporting fabulous makeup, he is not afraid to go big and broad playing a character with no reason to restrain himself; he comes across like a more morose, undead version of William Campbell’s Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos” (and if the Star Trek reference seems misplaced, remember that this is another immortal character whose manners and attitudes, rooted in the past, baffle the modern characters whom he hosts in his medieval castle). Maddison Bullock has the trickier role; since her character is so outmatched, it’s difficult to make her something more than the literal vampire’s puppet, manipulated for his (and the audience’s) erotic amusement. When the opportunity eventually arises, she certainly grabs it.
True to the tone of its undead host, The Vampire’s Puppet concludes with a grand, melodramatic flourish (a little less flashy but far more dramatically satisfying that the finale of Hollywood and Vamp). Really, all this play needs is to be front-loaded in a way that engenders audience anticipation for the twists, turns, and revelations of the climax. Loading Chekhov’s gun at the beginning would amplify the bang at the end.
The Vampire's Puppet Rating
Built upon a solid premise, The Vampire’s Puppet delivers forty-five minutes of enjoyable Gothic melodrama in a modern setting, but the setup could do a better job of raising audience expectations for the ending.
Credits: Written by Chris Levine. Directed by Denise Devin and Zombie Joe. Starring Chris Levine and Maddison Bullock.
The Vampire’s Puppet continues at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre on October 24 & 25, starting at 8:30pm. The address is 4850 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit urbandeath.com.