Undead Again

Swoop plunges into the life of a vampire

Mac Wellman plays come in three basic types: the incomprehensible (The Bad Infinity), the encouragingly thinkable (Sincerity Forever, 7 Blowjobs) and the borderline (Whirligig). In the borderline plays, there’s sense enough to keep you thinking and nonsense enough to make you want to throw in the towel. In the these plays, you think you’re just getting the hang of things when suddenly you’re faced with a character, a plot twist or a harangue that makes you doubt whether you"ve understood anything. That there’s beauty of language in most Wellman plays is inarguable; but in the borderline plays, that language is most ambiguous, seeming at one time to refer to some important reality, at others to be nothing but phonemes for phonemes" sake.Swoop, as you"ve guessed by now, is a borderline play. Aside from a very few moments, it’s a series of four monologues, one by Dracula and three by a trio of vampires: Wilhemina Murray (as her higher nature), Wilhemina Murray again (as her id), and Lucy Westenra. Ignoring, for a moment, the difficulties each vampire presents, I can make a couple of generalizations: Each addresses the audience on an intellectual level; next to nothing "happens," if by "happens" we mean some change or turn of events. What we do experience is something like a Theme and Variations on the subject of vampirism. And along with it we experience some genuinely thrilling writing.

The proceedings (lasting about an hour) begin with Dracula himself, as played by Steve Mountan, who is superb as the head vampire. Looking cadaverous (and very hungry), he’s at once depressed, depraved, infinitely old and very tired. He tells us that his name is Moral Shadow Witherspoon — later he’ll claim he’s Aloysius Nancarrow Flowerpot, and then Royal Treatment Doodad — and that he’s an aristocrat. But he’s hardly begun his speech when he starts to wander in and out of sense: "Once I journeyed among the wise, and spoke of Hegel, Harry Martin, the Master of the Yellow Parasol and Maurice the Geek of Nones, who crept into the unlatched mailbox of the Protophotophagoi."

This oscillation continues throughout the evening, but sometimes there’s beauty — "It is, indeed, a world of blur that hovers beneath our dancing feet" — and sometimes there’s a certain comic redefinition of terms: ‘not all bloods taste the same. Not to speak of nutritive value. Unless one is built, gastroenterologically speaking, along the lines of a leech, one is not likely to derive much in the way of sensual delectation from such a diet."

The picture that we have at the end of this first monologue is of Dracula the antiquarian (he collects lunar eclipses), the imbiber of "geezer gas" (real nutrition for the undead), condemned to bite even against his better nature: ‘tooth must do the work of tooth."

The head man exits and Wilhemina Murray comes onstage, acted by Roz Potenza. She plays "First Mina" as a sexual sophisticate, the erotically charged vampire we"ve come to expect from recent films. Still, as one might expect in a Wellman play, she’s more philosopher than predator. She’s come to tell us a few things: She much prefers undead status to her previous life as a mortal; Count Dracula "has gone gaga"; and nothing thrills her more than the eating of plump, white housecats.

There are beauties in this monologue too — for instance, when she describes the reality of ordinary people as taking place "on the horizontal face of a small, insignificant pond that is quietly freezing over." And there’s even political comment when she tells us some of what she’s found while burrowing under the city: "arson, barbarous suppression of strikes and riots, oppression and wicked crimes against orphans, widows, Africans and the North American red man." By the time of her exit, "First Mina" has almost convinced us that we"ve understood Swoop as a clever comment on certain unattractive features of our own world, the world of flawed mortals.

But then ‘second Mina" arrives, and we’re back to our borderline confusion. Second Mina is skillfully played by Teresa Elena Gallar as a Halloween vampire, all fangs and ill will. She’s also a complainer, tired of eating house cats and tomcats, and doubly tired of trying to tell them apart from 7 miles up. Apropos of nothing, she remembers being present in 1600 when Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake, and she whines about the "incredible paucity of places of escape."

Back in the world of Wellman’s stream-of-consciousness — and having trouble keeping track of the sense of it — we’re next introduced to Lucy Westenra, strongly played by Arrianna Thompson. Thompson’s Lucy is forceful and joyful, ‘the happiest girl who ever trod the surface of the Moving World, or put tooth to vein." If we for a moment thought we were getting a grasp on Swoop, now it’s as hard to pin down as it was when we first met Dracula.

"What is stabbed by tusk knows fates" no nicety of wriggle," says Lucy. ‘the one who doubts the riddle of turbulence will find her house riven by molecular derision." As our confusion returns, we know only that for some reason, we"ve been introduced to four variations on the theme of vampirism; and that our experience of Swoop is unlike just about any other we"ve had in the theater.

And so is our experience of the outdoor stage at Viva La Frida Cafe Y Galeria. The good news here is Ned Averill-Snell’s appropriately black and brooding set; the bad news is the street noises that overwhelm, from time to time, the voices of the actors. Swoop is difficult enough as it is; with missed words and phrases, the experience can be exasperating.

Nothing interferes with the rightness of the company’s vampiric costumes, though — Gallar’s bloodstained gown is particularly appropriate — and Jo Averill-Snell’s directing is terrific, with one exception: More Volume! More Volume! Finally, it’s a pleasure to see Alley Cat Productions back on top of things with another Wellman play. This is the best show they"ve done since Sincerity Forever and keeps alive the promise of this relatively new theater company.

So all right, the thing is borderline baffling. So it’s not one of those Wellman plays that you can interpret and file away.

Still, it has some terrific writing and some satisfying acting.

And it’ll give you more to think about than 10 dramas that are more accommodating.

Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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