Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What's Snoo, Pussycat?

Mind control keeps rising from the grave in Vampire.

No one has heard much from avant Brit dramatist Snoo (a.k.a. Andrew) Wilson in a while, at least on this side of the pond - indeed, on these shores, his brand of speculative drama has fallen decidedly out of favor. So leave it to the edgy, idealistic Whistler in the Dark theatre company to resurrect, as it were, his 1973 historical-trash-feminist epic Vampire, now in the New Rep's Black Box through Saturday.

The youthful Whistlers (who mostly hail from Middlebury College) made a small name for themselves with a punchy, go-for-it rendition of Howard Barker's The Possibilities a year or two ago - and clearly they've lost little of their daring, or taste for lacerating British rhetoric. Vampire follows, in haphazard fashion, the femme "bloodline," as it were, of a British family from the late nineteenth century to 1971, but narrative structure, shall we say, isn't really Snoo Wilson's thing. Indeed, he's devoted to driving a stake through all structure, be it patriarchal, familial, social, or dramatic, in an effort to open up the audience to a suggestive network of parallels and buried truths. Alas, these truths - usually of the post-structuralist variety - today seem a bit dated; the central problem with Wilson, however, is simply that he sometimes "makes little sense on the page," as director Meg Taintor admits. Nevertheless, the Whistlers have mounted a clean, thought-through production, in which we always know pretty much "where" and "when" we "are," even though the stage is generally bare, some of the protagonists are protoplasm, and the only props are coffins.

Alas, the Whistlers still can't quite conjure any cumulative power from the piece (this would be a challenge even for a major company): Wilson delivers several striking speeches and scenes, but hasn't supplied enough connective tissue to construct a convincing dramatic arc. Of course, if you believe that structure itself should be resisted, as its power and influence act upon us like "vampires," (who, at least in conceptual form, crawl all over the script), then you should be fine with the fractured timeline and all the dramatic fragments. If, however, you also sense the free-form theatrics could themselves constitute something of an authorial dodge (and perhaps recall that Caryl Churchill does this kind of thing so much better), you'll be less impressed. It's certainly true the Whistlers do well by each playable scene - they imbue the nineteenth-century ghost stories with a suitable frisky spirit, and give a particularly weird, deadpan spin to the 1971 finale in a "biker mortuary." But unlike the hairpin turns of The Possibilities, Wilson's surreal shenanigans (incest in coffins, and necrophilia on the cricket ground) aren't as shocking as they used to be - indeed, they have a certain cozy, undergraduate familiarity - and the Whistlers' presences aren't strong or complex enough to carry us over the gaps between each skit.

Still, the production definitely has its resonant moments, and I hate to discourage the Whistlers when they're really the only local group committed to shaking up (or waking up) the audience, and several of the performances do haunt the mind. Lorna Nogueira is compelling as both a frustrated suffragette and (especially) as the last, truly speculative scene's ambisexual messiah. Beth Pearson likewise does well by her spooky "'twas a dark and stormy night" number, while the gaunt Travis Boswell looks indeed as if he might have stepped out of either a penny-dreadful or Pulp Fiction. And the show includes at least one memorably unsettling coup de théâtre, when a coffin squeaks open and a hand gropes for the audience - yes (you can almost hear Wilson giggling), the dead are still out there, wandering the landscape like succubi, ready to drain us of both blood and will . . .

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