Plague Drama from the Comfort of Your Own Home: “Nosferatu, The Vampyr”

Presented by Sparkhaven Theatre & Homesick Play Project
Written by by M Sloth Levine
Original music composed by Alissa Voth
Directed by Hannah Pryfogle
Musicians: Rebecca Elowe, Bri Tagliaferro, Andrew Gaffney

April 30, 2020
Streamed through HowlRound Theatre Commons 
The streamed version recorded for posterity (and to prove there were witnesses HERE)

Review by Kitty Drexel

Disclaimer: This review is a response to the experience of a Zoom performance of Nosferatu, The Vampyr.  

ONLINE, Everywhere — Nosferatu, The Vampyr, a play with original music about a mysterious plague with mysterious origins, is the dramatic queering that society needs. It was meant to run at Chelsea Theatre Works March 19 – 28, until the coronavirus, our factual plague, prevented its run. While it would have been brilliant to review Nosferatu, The Vampyr in real life, the Zoom version proves that great theatre can be created specifically for internet viewing with time, ingenuity, and some creative tweaking. Not all streamed theatre content is worth viewing. Nosferatu is. 

I was extremely lucky to have attended a performance of Nosferatu, The Vampyr when Milky Way Coffee Roasters produced it at the Mosesian Center for the Arts on Halloween 2018 in Watertown, MA. I didn’t review it; I attended as a lover of strange and unusual theatre. (I myself am strange and unusual.) My experience on October 31, 2018, did not prepare me for the performance on April 30.

M Sloth Levine’s Nosferatu genderfucks B Stoker’s Dracula in ways the author would never conceive. It is unapologetically queer. It subverts heteronormalcy so sincerely and concretely that the audience is forced to take for granted the relationships it posits. 

Will (Maurice Palmer) and Harker (Dev Blair) have just married. They are settling together when Harker is called away to settle a real estate venture with the eccentric Count Orlock (Jo Michael Rezes). Orlock is determined to expand his life experiences. He does so at the expense of everyone around him… Because he is an emotional, sexual, and factual vampire. The villagers try to warn Harker but Harker assumes that it’s the villagers who are the weirdos. They are wrong. 

While Harker is away, Will turns to their best friend Lucy (Victoria Brancazio, who also plays Knock) and mentor Van Helsing (Katie Grindeland, also in various other roles) for comfort. Caught in Orlock’s clutches, they maneuver to save the human race. They grasp at normalcy only for it to slip from their fingers one unexplained illness at a time. It is only with great sacrifice that they are able to save the human race from Orlock’s clutches. Rebecca Elowe plays the violin and rounds out the ensemble. 

Please note that this performance is copyright free. The rights for copyrighted music in the Nosferatu script were not obtained. A disembodied voice speaking stage directions explains where the copyrighted music would normally play. The viewer must imagine the music. The stage directions don’t idle. 

A lot of theatre doesn’t adapt to Zoom well. Anyone paying attention to the influx of options available online will figure this out quickly. This is because theatre creators are unaccustomed to adapting theatre to the internet. Despite its multitudinous horrors and society’s extreme dependency upon it, the internet is still an untapped resource for creating new performances. It’s a spanking new idea to stylize theatre for Zoom, Hangouts, Facetime, etc. Nosferatu takes to the medium of Zoom with grace and pizzaz. 

The April 30 performance experienced a few small technical glitches and sound imbalances. The cast reacted with aplomb by leaning into their characters. This, despite the fact that they were in different rooms and couldn’t use each other’s presence to navigate the glitches together. There was nothing they could do to stop the glitches. They worked with them instead. It tells me that they are skilled in improv in addition to traditional acting practice. Their performances were an education is what to do when experiencing technical difficulty: be patient, be loyal to the work, stay in character, trust that your techies have your back. 

The sound imbalances were possibly a result of my computer. But it’s also possible that it wasn’t. Sound and image quality will vary by device. Given the timing of the lockdown, viewers must anticipate that there will be inconsistencies in sound and visuals. There is little a theatre can do if a patron’s computer hails from 2007 and hasn’t been updated since. 

These issues are wild cards that Sparkhaven and Homesick Play Project couldn’t possibly prevent without great expense. Even then, internet speeds not being universal, it would be impossible for a fringe production to troubleshoot all possible issues. The lovely violin playing by Rebecca Elowe (it was so good to hear and see a person play an instrument that tears came to my eyes) was clear and sweet while her singing voice was difficult to hear over her backing track. This could be a matter of harmonic overtones bouncing off of a standard laptop’s mic or it could be my Dell’s speakers. What matters is that the sound was perfectly suitable for home viewing, inconsistencies, and all. 

A viewer watching Nosferatu, The Vampyr will forget that the actors aren’t performing in the same space. They share the split-screen more naturally than The Brady Bunch or the Roots in an acapella segment on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show. The actors’ camaraderie read clearly through the camera to our great delight. 

Nosferatu, The Vampyr combines the best parts of Brecht’s hammer smashing epic theatre and grassroots drag. It points a long, withered finger at society’s inability to care more about the greater good than completing a financial transaction. We consider retaining perceived normalcy as more important than correcting immoral or detrimental behaviors. Pretending that Orlock’s arrival didn’t coincide with the plague doesn’t make anyone less sick.  Let’s not pretend that deaths couldn’t have been avoided if we’d taken coronavirus seriously when China did. 

The cast of Nosferatu worked incredibly hard to create this performance. Each of them deserves credit for their good work. Jo Michael Rezes delivers the standout performance of the production. Their singing, acting, and prop work are exceptional. They thoroughly chew each scene at least 10 times before swallowing. If you choke on it, it’s your own fault. 

We’re all experiencing the great discomfort of quarantine. Harker says in a poignant moment that they’ve become untethered from the life they’ve built with Will. His words ring true. It feels like we’re untethered from the life we knew two months ago. Staying at home feels like a prison sentence. It isn’t. That’s what actual prisons are for. Things have changed. They won’t change back. Embrace it.

Fortunately for most of us, quarantine is merely uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have to explain why it’s important to care about people even though it’s hard right now. Wash your hands for 20 seconds; stay at home; get some exercise; wear a face mask outside. You might not feel like a vampire that spreads the plague but you could be an asymptomatic carrier. 

Donate to the theatre companies creating online content. They aren’t altruistic institutions. If you want them to continue to exist after quarantine, we must pay these companies for their work. 

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