January 25, 2011

Female fangs overthrow male dominance in Carmilla

Vampire stories always seem to involve some aspect of sexuality and power. Since the conception of the genre, the vampire has almost always been portrayed as male, and his centuries of experience make him a dominant figure. His act of biting a victim has always either metaphorically or explicitly been linked to sex. Frequently, misogyny prevails in vampire stories. In Dracula, for example, women are portrayed as pure and innocent, needing to be “saved” by their human husbands from the sexual power that a liason with a vampire would give them. This same lack of balance between the powerful male vampire and the powerless female human can be seen in the more contemporary Twilight series.

But WildClaw Theatre’s Carmilla overturns these genre conventions. The play is based on the Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novella of the same name, which was actually written before Dracula. However, it is Dracula and its ideology that has pervaded the pop culture, and WildClaw Theatre takes pleasure in bringing attention to the often forgotten Carmilla, even slightly altering the ending to reinforce the story’s feminist ideology.

Carmilla is the story of a female vampire who has intimate, often sexual relationships with her (female) victims. She is a symbol of female power as she rejects male love and domination. As a vampire who chooses her victims and her lovers, she asserts female independence and sexuality. Although the protagonist of the story is Laura, a simple English girl who has seen little of the world and whose relationship with Carmilla opens new horizons for her, Carmilla easily steals the show. Michaela Petro is exquisite in the role of this powerful, mysterious vampire.

Beautiful and alluring, she challenges the gender norms of the society around her both through her words and actions, but especially through her relationships. Despite being the demonic “monster” that both hunts and haunts those around her, she easily becomes the most sympathetic character: She exposes the weaknesses of the men who preach male dominance and offers compelling (perhaps even more so today than when it was written) arguments for the equality of the sexes.

Not all of the acting is as captivating as Petro’s, however. Charley Sherman is at times rather weak as Laura’s father. As artistic director of the theatre, this is his first time onstage, and it shows. He is at times unconvincing and tries very hard to be funny. There are many scenes where his character attempts to dramatically quote Shakespeare but forgets how the line goes, and his delivery just isn’t funny. Brian Amidei’s German accent as General Spielsdorf doesn’t sound German, only incomprehensible, and his acting is not always believable. At the beginning, the portrayal of comfortable country life, with the characters playing cards and chatting, feels very strained. The accents are hit-or-miss and sometimes feel unnecessary. But these faults begin to fall away before the power of the story and the staging.

The play is, perhaps, so powerful because it’s so scary: It’s like a horror movie put onstage. There’s blood, fighting, suspense, shadowy figures prowling around the stage, scary music, lots of screaming, seething and ferocious vampires—basically everything that makes scary movies scary. (Well, it doesn’t have all the unnecessary gore that most horror films feel obligated to put in.) This doesn’t exactly make it lifelike (how lifelike can vampires be anyway?), but it does make it visceral. In a sense, it also breaks down the fourth wall, as the fear and suspense make you feel like a part of the story a lot more than perhaps you’d like to. You’re as terrified as the characters, as moved, and almost as invested in the outcome.

Don’t go to see the show if you’re queasy—it’s scary. But if you can stomach that, go see it for a story that’s much deeper and much more original than Twilight.