I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was my first time seeing a show at the Philadelphia Fringe/Live Arts Festival (ever). The description in the program guide and the theatre company’s website said that extensive scientific research on fear in the brain, and what makes people scared had been consulted for the production. The production was purposefully staged across the street from a hospital. Waivers must be signed by each audience member prior to entering the theater.
I arrived at the address one block south of Market on 10th Street early… and couldn’t find the theatre. There was a sidewalk sign advertising the “sold out” show (in reality, about 8-10 seats remained vacant) so I knew I was in the vicinity, but where was it? I was standing in front of a small gothic revival church dating back to 1823, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. A plaque there reads “this church is built on the site where Benjamin Franklin flew his famous kite.” What a brilliant opportunity for marketing a show it would be, if it were in this church I thought to myself. Crossing the small street/alley (Ludlow Street), I looked down and noticed an awning with “Lantern Theater Co.” printed on it at the rear of the church.
Inside, I was given “the mark of the beast” on the back of my hand instead of a ticket stub, and handed a clipboard with a two page waiver I was asked to read and sign. They were serious, it wasn’t just a marketing ploy. My theater companion had yet to arrive, so I sat down and read the entire legal document. In short, the waiver indemnifies the church and the theater group against any liability should any injury or death occur. I have to admit, I wondered whether seeing any show could be worth signing away any future claims should an incident (accidental, or…?) occur. Deciding that no waiver such as this would hold up in court, I gleefully signed away… and then I called my lawyer and my parents.
At the appointed time, the audience was lined up and led by an usher down a flight of stairs in almost complete darkness. We joked that this was the real reason for the waiver. Little did we know!
A black curtain at the bottom of the stairs separated us from the theater, and the ushers led each member of the audience into the space one at a time–splitting up couples and groups. Being seated apart from your social backup group is supposed to make you more susceptible to fear, I supposed. I was liking the director’s thinking, although the process of getting seated was tedious.
The space was dank, dark and hot. A prerequisite for Philly Fringe shows, I was told. I kept thinking of the Theatre of the Vampires in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. What if it were real? It’s only a matter of time before the first real “snuff theatre” arrives at the Fringe, where some hapless bit player or gullible audience member is actually murdered onstage for the sake of drama. (Although if it were to happen, I nominate the guy in the front row laughing loudly at very inappropriate moments.) Not normally such a fearsome person, I recognized that the anticipation of being frightened added to the fun (and the expectations).
When the audience of about 35-40 were finally seated, and the single lightbulb dimmed. We sat in total darkness and silence for a minute or two… long enough to make me a little more afraid of what was about to happen. I imagined finding myself immersed in the drama when the lights returned–no audience, no actors–confused and disoriented; trapped. As it turned out, it was much like the beginning of the play. Jonathan Harker is having some kind of fit, and is being restrained and sedated by three nurses. Like a combination of the comic film “Groundhog Day” and the shaky camera-work and odd lighting of “The Blair Witch Project,” the action is repeated, and we see flashes of monstrous demons. Is Harker having a bad dream, or is it reality? We don’t know, and neither does he. The short scenes and quick lighting cues served to make the experience very much like watching a film. The main source of lighting is a single handheld candle, which repeatedly goes out, and is relit (usually on the 3rd try). The nurses double as a chorus of “brides”; a coven of vampires, who often speak as one and even form one body with three heads through some very interesting choreography.
While initially intriguing, all of these technical aspects of the show were not enough to save the production, and they quickly became tedious. The two male leads, Jonathan Harker and Dracula seemed miscast. [No programs were distributed before the show, so I don’t know the actor’s names.] Harker was a bit too old, and too much of a comedic doughboy to be taken seriously in this role. Had the show been written as a Seinfeld episode, he would’ve been perfectly cast. And from what little we see of Dracula himself, all I can say is that he was too blond, too tan, too hunky (or chunky… it was VERY dark!) to be taken seriously as an Evil Undead. And when he was addressed as “The Count” I almost laughed out loud it was so unbelievable.
An hour and fifteen minutes after the lights went out, all the flickering/flashing lights and repeating scenes of screaming, terrified characters was giving me a headache. And it was hot. Very hot. I decided that the director found the fanning audience distracting, and took away the fans by withholding programs. Or maybe the actors were embarrassed to be seen in the show, and stole all the programs. When it was finally over, the first thing I thought of was “I hope they don’t make us leave one by one!”
After the show, audience members who LIKED the show were invited to videotape a testimonial for YouTube in the lobby. Here’s a message from the director, and some audience members: