When this play looks in the mirror, the dramaturg is invisible
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Oct. 30, 2009
Dougherty Arts Center, through Oct. 31
Running time: 1 hr, 30 min
When I was in sixth grade, I knew a teacher who owned a fancy camera. This camera had a recorded voice that would issue stern advice on occasion, such as when she needed more light to get a good exposure. "Too dark!" it would tell her. "Use flash!"
Weird City Theatre Company's Nosferatu is a dark play. Very, very dark. So dark that you can't always see what's happening. Would that there had been a recorded voice to tell the company, "Too dark! Use flash!" Gothic Halloween vampire story or not, the audience still needs enough light to see the actors.
In fact, that little voice giving necessary reminders – known in some circles as a dramaturge (the University of Texas has several of them) – is a key component to what's missing in this production. The main reason why there isn't enough light may not have much to do with lighting designer Philip B. Richard II. It's because the minimalist set (no designer credited) is constructed out of a series of platforms, and the levels are built too high for the Dougherty Arts Center stage. The actors have just enough light at stage level, but once they step up to the highest platform, they are left in shadow because the lights are focused two or three feet below their faces. One of the things a dramaturge does is ensure that folks are talking to one another when they plan these things.
Another thing a dramaturge does is unify a play's vision. The show's creators have a split concept on their hands: Is this a tale of Gothic literature for the stage, adapted from the Bram Stoker novel? Or is it a theatrical homage to F.W. Murnau's silent horror film by the same name? Those are two related but very separate things, each with its own concerns and aesthetic. This Nosferatu nails the filmlike makeup (designed by Amelia Turner) and costume (John F. Carroll, who also plays the lead role and co-directs) of vampire Count Orlock (Nicholas Kier). Several times throughout, Count Orlock is shown backlit against a scrim to give the audience the thrill of his creepy silhouette. But the film's aesthetic influence becomes lost as the play tries to track its many short scenes of young men and women in peril shrieking, fainting, and squirming under the teeth of the undead Orlock. A dramaturge can step in and mention that within the story as adapted by Carroll and John W. Smith, there are seeds of complex thoughts about disease, religious symbolism, and the hefty sexual undertones of vampires in general. A dramaturge can help grow these seeds into something fruitful.
Not to spoil the ending, but a dramaturge can also look up the meaning of the phrase "innocent maiden," whose sacrifice can vanquish the monster. It does not mean a nice lady who has been happily married for some time.