Sitcoms on the Stage Part II: The Essence of the Vampire

Vampires. They seem to be omnipresent in popular culture. Growing up, media has surrounded me with them, from the Barnabas Collins fandom that existed when I was young to the Twlight-mania of today. So it is any surprise that when Van Nuys High School went to choose a fall production, they turned to vampires. Their selection was Varney the Vampire, or “The Feast of Blood”.

You’ve heard of it, no?

First, to assuage any fears, this is not a production about a giant purple dinosaur with the speech impediment that lures children to him under the guise of education but turns around and sucks the life force from them. That would be truly horrific and scary and any resemblence to the rehearsals for this production are truly a coincidence.

Varney the Vampire (full plot summary; another summary) was originally published between 1845 and 1847 in 109 (some say over 200) weekly installments as a penny dreadful (a serial story marketed to the working class). It was written by James Malcolm Rymer (although it has long been attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest instead). If you want to read the actual story, someone is posting it chapter by chapter on their blog. The story was actually quite influential, having contributed quite a few of the vampire lore notions to popular culture (but not the notion that they sparkle). Somewhere along the way, a fellow by the name of Tim Kelley adapted and condensed these stories into a play version, which has been performed in various venues to mixed levels of success (one review I found while researching this background begins: “Not since Sebastian Sly butchered “Madness at Midnight” has there been another stage play that bites as badly as “Varney the Vampire.” This play sucks. Literally.”)

This version of Varney concerns the events that occurred at the Inn of the Grouchy Wolf near Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. The Inn is owned and operated by Signora Bell. One evening, the kitchen man Gino and his sister Carla hear a noise. While investigating the noise, Gino is murdered by what Carla reports is a giant bat. Inspector Balsadella arrives to investigate, at which point we meet the current occupants of the Inn: Flora Bannerworth, her chaperone Miss Anderbury, the young artist Richard Dearborn, and his ditzy cousin Jennifer. We learn that Flora has fallen in love with Richard (to the disapproval of her chaperone), and that Jenny likes to wander the woods in search of birds nests. We also get to meet Sir Francis Varney, who has returned to the inn after 200 years to kill himself, having never gotten over the death of the love of his life, Amelia Quasimodo (who is haunting the inn as a ghost, unable to rest while Varney lives). However, when Varney arrives he meets Flora and falls in love, finding a purpose to live (if you can call it a life). Adding complication to the mix is the return of Gino as some form of hunchback zombie minyon, and Lady Cynthia Holland, a wannabe vampiress who wants Varney to seal the marriage deal and turn her into a real vampire.

As you can see the story is your usual series of silly complications, which isn’t surprising given it was based on the sitcom of the day. In that sense, this show is similar to last week’s show, Happy Days: The Musical, in that it was a sitcom put on stage. The plot improbabilities and sillyness was about equal. There were a few good lines, but quite a few of scenes did make me want to add commentary (I remember, for example, when the cross was put on the vampire’s head, and he complained about it burning, that I said to myself: “Head on. Apply directly for forehead”). There were a few very funny scenes, in particular the death of Lady Cynthia and the reaction of Flora to the garlic necklace (which I attribute to the actresses in the role having fun with the part).

This leads to the key factor that overcame the weak story and made this reasonably fun to watch: the cast had fun with it. Once you got past the poor writing, the student actors did quite a good job with the acting side, speaking clearly and with good characterization. A few segments were a bit overplayed, but that seems to be something the faculty director likes to do. It would be intereting to see how this production might work with student direction (in fact, it would be good if Van Nuys took up took up Ken Davenport’s suggestion and had full student control, including student directors, student producers (including fundraising and control over budget), student marketing directors, student casting agents, etc.).

In any case the cast was excellent (I should report here that I am biased in this, for my daughter had a role and many of her friends were in the cast). Leading the cast was Quest Sky Zeidler as Sir Francis Varney. We’ve seen Quest grow over the years, and he has quite a bit of fun with villinous roles. Here he built upon his Mr. Applegate of the Spring to create an evil, but not fearful, vampire. As Flora Bannerworth, Glory Smith was fun to watch, especially (as noted above) in her garlic reaction scene and the scene where she is on top of her intended, Richard Dearborn. As Dearborn, Matthew James Golden portrays the artist well, moving from a seeming milquetoast to a strong young man. Ariel Kostrzewski is fun to watch as Jenny: she captures the ditzy aspects quite well. Sameer Nayak played Inspector Balsadella quite comically, with some sort of odd Italian accent that made me wonder where the director learned about Italy (it wasn’t just this show, for the director has had bad Italian accents before). Lady Cynthia Holland, of the aforementioned excellent death scene (which prompted the line from Varney: “Can’t anyone learn to die properly”), was played by Taylor Morris. Amelia Quasimodo was played by Erin Faigin (my daughter), who brought a lot of emotion to her love for Varney, which came across quite well in here graveyard scenes. Gino, played by Cesar Alas, was fun to watch as the huntchback where he seemed to enjoy hamming in up. Rounding out the cast were Kiran Sanghera as Inez-the-Gypsy-Girl (yes, that’s how she was introduced every time), Jade Field as Miss Anderbury, and Priscilla Legaspi as Carla.

The production was under the stage management of Ericka Lopez, Alicia Ryan Lee, and Manmit Sigh, aided by the members of Actors in Action. Randy Olea was the faculty director.

Technically, there were hits and misses. The tech crew was lead by Marque Coy, and featured Nicolai Reeve, Sierra McDuffee, and Kenji Kang as sound engineers, Cody Banks as lighting designer (Jonathan Waters on moving lights), and Patricia Ponce and Ricksang Jachung as asst. lighting technicians. The sound was markedly better than in previous productions, although someone kept forgetting to turn off the backstage microphones. The lighting was reasonably good, although there were some miscues on Saturday night. The set was built by Mr. Tom Kirkpatrick and his stage class and looked a lot nicer than some of the sets we’ve seen in the past. In particular, the haunted grotto was particularly spooky, and there was a nice touch of having a picture of Amelia Quasimodo (with the real actress) in the inn.

Varney the Vampire has completed its production run. The Spring production of Van Nuys will be Evita. That should be interesting.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week brings “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 21), The Wild Party” at Malibu Stage Company on Friday November 26, and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for Saturday November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson on December 18, and for Karen and Ern, West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre on December 24 (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices).

Looking briefly into 2011: January will bring Tom Paxton at McCabes on my birthday, January 21 (pending ticketing), and perhaps the first REP show of the season. February will bring The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19, and Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows (although my daughter was in this production). In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.