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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

Play Exposes the Vampire in All of Us

On Nov. 20 to 22, the Theatre Department presented its second faculty production of the semester, Englishman Snoo Wilson’s 1973 play, Vampire, in the Seeler Studio Theater.

Vampire is a play about ... well, no one really knows. And indeed, after an hour and a half of brash sexual exploration, one very unexpected satanic baby birthed by Mary (yes, that Mary), a terribly profane talking ox, fights between Karl Jung and Sigmund Freud, a maniacally laughing Charles Dickens and two biker boys in underwear, the majority of the audience walked away from the play with at least one brow raised – or, more likely, furrowed. Forget linear plotting and traditional character development – Vampire spans three time periods and locations, moving from 19th century Wales to World War I era England to a rebellious biker group in 1960’s London.

Over his prolific forty-year career, Wilson wrote plays, screenplays and novels of political farce, the arcane, the occult and the irrational. Vampire is certainly a Gothic example of the last three.

Professor of Theatre Cheryl Faraone has enjoyed a more than 30-year friendship and professional partnership with Wilson, undertaking 10 productions of his plays in that time, many in collaboration with Professor of Theatre Richard Romagnoli.

“The world according to Snoo Wilson is wild, bawdy, fantastical, smart and utterly resilient – this writer does not trade in despair or cynicism,” Faraone said in her Director’s Note. “We need him now.”

It is important to understand that though the term “vampire” may today immediately conjure images of glittering Robert Pattinsons, hunks with fangs or even more traditional visions of Dracula, “vampire” takes on a much deeper and more widely applicable meaning in the context of the play.

Vampire ... peers at the ways in which various social constructs (religion, psychology, propaganda, fanatic subcultures) indoctrinate, oppress, and turn us into the living dead: ‘vampirization,’” Evann Normandin ’14.5 wrote in her Dramaturge’s Note.
Normandin, who acted in the play as a part of her senior theatre work, also took on the role of a dramaturge, a professional who deals with the research and development of a play for a company.

“I started out in the first weeks doing a lot of research for each period,” she said, “As we went on, I explored a lot of the really smart references that Snoo included in the play. I think we’ve come to as full an understanding as we could have hoped at this point, and if we had kept working on it, we would probably keep finding things out and the exploration could go on forever, which is what’s so cool about it.”

Chelsea Melone ’15 also acted in Vampire as her senior work. In addition to exploring her three main characters, Melone worked with Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre and Guest Artist Bill Army ’07 to develop the four accents needed for her roles, learning the international phonetic alphabet and participating in private sessions with the theatre alumnus as well as larger sessions designed to help the entire cast develop their many accents.

Melone’s characters, all part of a strong female lineage separated by time and place, offered cohesion to the otherwise erratic development of the play’s three acts.

The first character came in the form of Joy, the sexually curious daughter of a staunch evangelical preacher who was played with wit, humor and gravity by Nicholas Hemerling ’14.5. Joy’s desire for independence and her promiscuous behavior lead her to a séance parlor and brothel, where she is a highly sexualized spiritual medium who ultimately services – horror of horrors – her father, who is shot to death in the very coffin in which he is having sex with his daughter.

In the most impressively staged scene of the production, Fight Director Adam Milano ’15 organizes a suspenseful gun battle in which every eclectic character in the brothel scene – the proprietress of the séance room, the Chinese photographer, the innocent soldier - meets their maker, except for Joy, who brushes off the disturbing encounter with her father with little more than a sigh. In the end, she wields the offending pistol in self-defense and casually struts out of the darkened room in the soldier’s uniform and a pair of sunglasses. The scene is carefully staged to maximize tension and visual drama, which heightens as Joy’s father is killed mid-thrust and does not disappear until Joy is the only person still living in the scene.

Though Joy’s granddaughter, Sarah, is alive half a century after her oppressed ancestor, she too faces the restrictions of proper World War I era British society, forced to watch a cricket match in the confines of a tight corset while participating in the proper speech expected of a lady in upper-crust British life. Disturbed by her status as an object better seen then heard, Sarah, too, searches for freedom from her role as a woman through the Suffragette movement.

Faraone asked Resident Scenic and Lighting Designer Hallie Zieselman to include photographs pertaining to each scene flashed on the wall to add extra context to the play. The images provided reference points and additional information about each period, especially to aid comprehension of some of the longer, more complex speeches within the piece. This effect was especially helpful when British propagandist posters appeared above each side of the audience, with phrases like “Your Chums are Fighting - Why Aren’t You?” and “Women of Britain Say Go,” offering a real-world visual reference during Normandin’s impassioned speech as Anthea, a young Englishwoman calling for young men to enlist.

In the final act, Melone portrays the most contemporary descendent of Joy and Sarah, Dwight, who thrives in the anti-establishment of the punk subculture filled with gender subversion, punk-rock music and an emotional and theatrical brand of religion. Dwight’s fearless speech includes snappy one-liners like “Heaven is where the homosexual fascists go for a bit on the side.”

“In theory that should have been the freest period of all, but in fact it’s just as trapping, and in a sense, the entrapment is the supposed freedom,” Faraone said. “We expect the oppression in the beginning, but we don’t necessarily expect it now.”

Melone’s acting soared in this production as she tackled the challenge of portraying three distinct characters in one show. Each was distinctive, engaging and original.

“I think Joy, the first character I play, is the most free,” Melone said. “Dwight definitely uses sex as power, especially with the bikers, but I find that I think she’s more plagued by sex and religion than the other two. It’s more of a burden to her then anything else, so it’s not as freeing as it is with Joy.”

Also tying together the acts of the play were coffins, crafted of different sizes and colors for each scene to further evoke the themes of death and vampirization, especially when famed psychologist Sigmund Freud, played by Hemerling, climbed into his own coffin, closed the lid while still talking, and was only silenced by the stake driven into his death box.

“The fact that Freud’s teachings and words literally get in the coffin and die, sort of leaving Jung to be the new Freud, suggest that this process will happen again,” Thomas Scott ’14.5 said. “It’s a cycle of structures and philosophies rising and then dying. There will always be vampires to take those things away but something else will always replace them, which is the way of life. I think for me that sums up the theme of the show.”

Hemerling deftly tackled his roles, which ranged from a passionate religious man who has sex with his daughter in a brothel to a slightly deranged Sigmund Freud, proving himself as a standout in every scene.

Odd scenes appeared intermittently throughout the play, including a Nativity scene of such vivid imagery that it will be difficult to view the Biblical tale in quite the same way ever again. Switching the donkey with a profane ox, the three Kings with Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung squabbling over psychology and the baby Jesus with a bright red Satan baby, delivered by Jung, I am afraid I cannot try to offer an explanation for this interlude in the middle of the play. Entertaining, yes. Explicable, no. But to try to explain a play like Vampire does not do it justice, because it is not about extracting a plot or “meaning.”

“I don’t think that religion is the butt of any joke, but perhaps ascribing too much meaning to anything is,” Leah Sarbib ’15.5 said. “In the Nativity scene with Freud and Jung you have religion, you have high intellectualism and then you have the ox, who basically thinks that everyone else is super dumb for trying to say that anything really means anything more profound than it is. I don’t think that Snoo would say that religion is meaningless, but that everything is kind of meaningless if you try to ascribe too much meaning to anything. That’s dangerous, and that might be the biggest vampire of all.”

Faraone agreed that Vampire is critical of institutional and societal restraints that stifle originality, expression and personal fulfillment.

“Making anything your God is dangerous,” she said. “Defining yourself by the tenants of any ideology and using that as a straightjacket rather than finding your way through something without losing yourself in the process is sometimes the easier choice. Wilson slashes away the things that we have made vampirize us, because things only have power if you allow them to have power over you.”

As is perhaps now apparent, Vampire is not an easy play to produce. Under the capable direction of Faraone, the phenomenal acting, enticing costumes and thrilling visual drama stood as a testament to the hard work of every member of the cast and crew. Though I may not fully understand the play, I can certainly say that I am still thinking about it days later.

“It’s evocative theatre, it’s not necessarily the kind of theatre where you walk out with answers,” Scott said. “About halfway through I started to embrace that, and even though I didn’t know what it was about, that’s exactly the point.”