BWW Review: One of a Kind NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY IN TERROR Haunts at Crown City Theatre through Halloween & Beyond
Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror/adapted from the film by F. W. Murnau/written and directed by William A. Reilly/choreographed by Lisaun Whittingham/Crown City Theatre/through November
German film-maker F. W. Murnau created the 1922 eclectic silent film Nosferatu based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. It is highly regarded worldwide as an artistic masterpiece, utilizing Expressionistic art. Now in a unique Los Angeles production - unlike any you have seen or are likely to - William A. Reilly has adapted the film to the stage at Crown City Theatre in NoHo. Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror is a silent film onstage with classical music, ballet and a splendid cast of nine actors, directed with remarkable precision by Reilly.
At first I thought the projection screen behind, that shows snippets of the film - mostly locations and not the movie actors - would be a distraction, as I looked from the screen to the stage and back. It reminded me of watching a foreign film and reading the subtitles rather than focusing on the actors and what they are trying to convey. But once you settle in, not to fear. There is a narrator (Saige Spinney) who tells the story. If you prefer, you may read the plot written out onscreen, but once you adjust your senses to the fascinating movement transpiring onstage, you may choose to just listen to Spinney. Reilly has staged the action quite adroitly using every inch of space and having the actors literally float, gracefully ... if you let your imagination carry you with the background symphony of music that includes Lizt, Rachmoninoff, Chopin, Grieg, Beethoven and Wagner among others. It's a genuine treat just to listen to the music. I'm not a die-hard lover of classical music, but, I must say, after watching Nosferatu ... I was moved so passionately ... that I have learned a far greater appreciation of it. It really injects elements of deep emotion into the scenes that words cannot. Anyway, to make a long story short, there are no distractions present in this production; everything works in harmony.
The story is most easy to follow, even if you are not familiar with the movie. The scene is Wisburg, Germany. The time: 1883. Thomas Hutter (Michael J. Marchak) marries Ellen (Alina Bolshakova). Their happy marriage is disrupted by a letter from Transylvania from Count Orlok (Michelle Holmes), who wishes to buy property in Wisburg. His uprooting from the Carpathian mountains will necessitate lawyer Thomas making the long trip to the Count's castle to bring legal papers for the Count to sign. Thomas has never been away from Wisburg, or out of Ellen's sight since their wedding, so, as he travels through the regions, he is truly a stranger in a strange land, despite the fact that the villagers are German born, speaking dialects of the German language. He meets many interesting rustics on the train and is amazed by their so called robust nature. Needless to say, many lecherous women attempt to seduce him. Pure and virginal that he is, he rejects all, thinking only of Ellen and their projected family and future happiness together. Once in Transylvania, villagers warn Thomas of the Count and give him a book on how to protect himself against vampires. The rest of the storyline, as you probably can guess, involves the Count's betrayal. He has callEd Thomas to his land to take his youthful blood. The Count leaves with his coffins on board a ship; the villagers help Thomas, now deathly ill, to escape. There is pestilence and plague on the ship; many men, women and children die horrible deaths. Thomas writes ahead to warn Ellen not to allow the Count to enter their home ... to no avail. There is, alas, no happy ending, for this is a symphony in terror.
Both Reilly's script and direction are ultimately fluid. Take, for example, Thomas's journey on board several trains. Reilly brings the small chorus of 6 men and women in and out consistently as they play passengers and ghostly creatures in Thomas's dreams. There is a steady flow between the action onstage, the limited scenarios onscreen, the tremendously powerful music...and Lisaun Whittingham's lovely choreography which includes ballet and, as I mentioned earlier, lets the figures literally 'float' around stage and through the audience as they make their entrances and exits.
Nosferatu has a dream cast. Marchak has never been better as Thomas, expressing with minimal effort, his fears, confusion and bewilderment at the lack of trust and loyalty in human nature. He really plays the innocence of the man to the hilt. Bolshakova as Ellen is loving, caring, so sweet and pretty... and dances divinely.
Michelle Holmes as the Count deserves a paragraph all to herself. First of all, this is the first time that the role has been played by a woman. Holmes' makeup and disguise completely transform her into the creepy male figure who moves slowly but methodically. She walks and uses her hands with long fingernails to great advantage as she describes her homeland and stealthily moves about attacking her prey. This is a brilliant performance as only the highly skilled Michelle Holmes can essay with uber finesse and a genuine sense of who she is. Brava!
Kudos to the rest of the fine cast, including Amanda Walter, Rolando J. Vargas, Shalynne Armstrong, Matthew Campell, Kristian Steel and Shayna Gabrielle. Praise as well to Reilly and Whittingham, to Daniel Donado for his video design and editing, to Joe Shea for his sound design and editing, to Chris Thume for his original video design, to Zad Potter for his simplistic but effective set and lighting design, and to Tanya Apuya for her seemingly basic period costumes in mostly black and white, which add so much to the texture and feel of the piece.
Before closing out, a word or two about the theme of the production. When plague and pestilence fell on Wisburg in the nineteenth century, everyone blamed the Count and not the rats on board the ship, for what transpired. He was foreign, strange, so it must be him. Apophenia is defined as the ability to see false patterns. Man has no proof that vampires exist even though there are books written on the topic. These are purely myths and superstitions, but yet the false patterns of man's creation produce unwanted fear and evil. Kindness and trust do exist but our world will never be totally safe until man puts a stop to those who exploit us. These ideas relate vibrantly to the candidates in our Presidential race this year. Who do we trust? Who is telling the truth and who truly cares about the future of our world?
On the lighter side, yes, there is a fun side to all of this vampire stuff. Go see Nosferatu at Crown City Theatre, enjoy, and bask in its very special artistic achievement. Bravo!
(photo credit: DayrJim Photography/