Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/The Passion of Dracula | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/The Passion of Dracula 

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VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM

Edge Productions

at Royal George Theatre Center

THE PASSION OF DRACULA

KKT Productions

at Talisman Theatre

It's simple enough: a person of the vampire persuasion gives you a hell of a hickey and slurps down your blood. Suddenly you're not just dead, you're undead, not to mention thirsty. You end up leaving your coffin nightly, intent on using your eyeteeth to convert others to the cause. Those victims are, preferably, nymphomaniacal virgins who frequent cemeteries, hate garlic, and never wear crucifixes. As recruitment goes, it falls somewhere between a blood drive and a Tupperware party, with sex instead of kitchen implements as the decisive lure.

The myth became part of our pop culture only 93 years ago, when Bram Stoker immortalized it in his 1897 potboiler Dracula, the novel that would not die. In our supposedly enlightened century, the toothy Transylvanian count has spawned a score of batty successors--among them Bela Lugosi, George Hamilton, Frank Langella, the salacious Vampira, and Thad Mayhugh, the lead in the recent, regrettable musical Obsession.

Transylvania has now become a state of mind, and the vampire's puncture wound a surrogate for sexual surrender. By definition a larger-than-life struggle, the myth makes a fit target for both romantic and satirical overkill. (Considering the means of transmission--"Blood will have blood"--it also chillingly resembles AIDS, our real-life gothic nightmare.)

The Passion of Dracula, an offering from KKT Productions, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, continuing at the Royal George Theatre Center, offer dramatically different approaches to the death-defying legend. The first takes it deadly seriously, while the second (an equal-opportunity version for women) laughs it into camp. And one sinks while the other soars on its silliness.

Edge Productions' Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, now in its tenth month, clearly has a lot more to offer than just a teasing title. Charles Busch's shameless travesty depicts two tough-as-nails golden girls who just happen to be rival vampires. Across the centuries these show-business succubi have found themselves in constant competition for a diminishing supply of virgins--first in ancient Sodom, then in Hollywood in the 20s, and finally in Las Vegas circa 1990.

Douglas Hartzell's staging cleverly plays up every show-biz stereotype Busch thoughtfully provides: bitchy chorus boys, a matinee idol forever posing, an ogling gossip columnist, a creepy butler with a homicidal past, a hardened has-been intent on a comeback, and above all, those gloriously histrionic vamps, who can turn anything into a vehicle.

Of course the ultimate show stealer is vampirism itself--you don't just upstage your fellow cast members, you drink them dead. Yet the strangely life-affirming Vampire Lesbians manages to celebrate hard-bitten survival over mere good taste.

There have been changes since Vampire Lesbians opened last January: Coma or Sleeping Beauty, its less successful companion spoof, has been dropped; ticket prices have been lowered; the production has been moved upstairs to the more intimate 60-seat space called the Cave. And it seems all the actors are wearing twice the makeup. Maybe they're afraid they'll be recognized after the show.

All that remains of the original cast is Alexandra Billings as the younger vampire. (She will occasionally alternate in the role with Jerry Skagerberg). As the innocent 14-year-old who in only a matter of centuries becomes a battered harridan, Billings is, if anything, funnier and more over- the-top than ever. Her timing would be the envy of a rattlesnake, and her wicked, mug-a-minute grimaces--ranging from a pucker-pussed Tallulah Bankhead to an Ann-Margret who's stolen Joan Crawford's lips and eyebrows--approach the purity of cartoons.

As Billings's bosom buddy and succubus soulmate, Adrianne Cury offers a fine impression of Angela Lansbury in the throes of repeated nervous breakdowns. (When Cury and Billings lurch into their convulsive vampire sound effects, it sounds like a sewer backed up in hell.) I'm tempted to suggest that Cury pushes the posturing over a cliff, but Busch's romp refuses to know the measure of restraint. She could, however, work harder on the Transylvanian accent and push the heartbreak harder.

Among the supporting replacements, Michele Gregory is perfect as the insipid ingenue the vampires crave to suck; all hypocritical ogling and practiced perkiness, Gregory is an improvement over Denise Tomasello, whose comedy was entirely too careful for this show. Equally delightful are Jim O'Heir, hideously painted as the buxom columnist; Thomas V. Kelly as a waxwork silent-screen idol; and Jeff Johnson as the deranged butler (though the brilliantly irrepressible Peter Mohawk is an almost impossible act to follow).

If Vampire Lesbians affords a poignant moment, it's at the end, when the bloodthirsty dames confess how lonely it gets when you have to keep killing everyone you know. The same pathos, played much more rhapsodically, is behind The Passion of Dracula, by Bob Hall and David Richmond. Set in an English sanatorium in 1911, it doggedly replays the Dracula story with hardly a surprise along the way (except for a huge rat invasion in the final scene).

Here Count Dracula is a romantic archetype, the last of his Hun-descended line (his most notorious relative is "Vlad the Impaler"). This Dracula harks back to a time "when man was one with the creatures of the night"--and we do hear four werewolf howls. His allure remains unmistakably erotic. Driven by the "loneliness of immortality," he searches for his "bride of darkness"--and instead gets a stake through the heart.

To make this melodrama matter to an audience requires concentrated ensemble work; any stylization must not only be completely consistent but also go deeper than mere flourishes. Unfortunately, Cindy S. Nagel's staging for KKT Productions is much more dead than undead. Beset by choppy pauses, halting deliveries, clumsy blocking, jumped lines, and dropped props, it is neither campy nor convincing. A victim of its own pernicious anemia, this production is about as menacing as margarine.

The nine truly abandoned actors have been left entirely to their own amateurish devices. Curiously, though the other actors tackle, however crudely, Cockney and Dutch accents, Kyle Storjohann plays the title role without a hint of Transylvania (what is this, his reluctance to have his performance compared to the immortal Lugosi's?). His breathlessly ardent attempts to infuse the role with import founder on the lack of any erotic feeling between him and his screaming victim, played with uncontagious hysteria by Penny Slusher. Still, Storjohann has one moment of accidental humor when he shrieks at his enemies, "Fools--more than that--food!"

Most of the other roles range from undercooked to overdone. Robbie Hungerford's depiction of the fly-eating neurotic Renfield is especially appalling, a weird mix of Peter Lorre's heavy breathing and Jerry Lewis's scenery chewing. David Graham, however, is crisply efficient as a samaritan reporter.

Even this humorless wasteland provides sporadic spots of fun. I treasure the put-down given Dracula by one of the playwrights' veddy English snobs: "Did anyone ever teach you to knock?"

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