Play Review: Carmilla

The Wildclaw Theatre in Chicago– probably the best horror theater company in the United States– has adopted J. Sheridan LeFanu’s novel Carmilla into a play of the same name.  The production is running now through February 20 at the DCA Storefront Theater in Chicago.

Wildclaw has handled zombies in prior productions, but with Carmilla now turns its attention to a vampyre story from 1872 (which, as everyone involved is quick to point out, means that it predates Dracula by more than two decades). 

Carmilla (the play [here and hereafter]) is the tale of Laura, a lonely teenage girl of the 19th century.  She is isolated by her family’s wealth, their rural location, and the almost courtly manners of their day.  Her only source of delight seems to be her occasional interactions with the mysterious gypsies who lurk in the woods near her family’s property.   Laura’s wards are gently trying to introduce to her the idea that she will probably have to marry one of her father’s older, wealthy friends.   However, this scheduled and boring existence is promptly upended when 1.) a terrifying scourge of vampyrism envelops the area, and 2.) a mysterious stranger comes to town in the form of a young seductress, named Carmilla, who obviously has eyes for Laura.

Carmilla (reclining) and Laura

I resolved to read some LeFanu in college because H.P. Lovecraft (my favorite writer) is recorded as having counted him an influence.  However, I stopped after one thin book of short stories, because LeFanu’s style is dense, halting, and tedious.  Moreover, and unpardonably, his stories are not scary. 

Carmilla, thankfully, is scary, and I think the study of what works– and what doesn’t– in Carmilla is a good study of narrative structure generally. 

As supporting characters obsess about the “mystery” of the vampyrism in the neighborhood, Laura finds herself befriended by Carmilla (which utterly delights her) and then seduced.

Many interesting, violent, and sexy things happen to Laura.  (And the character is expertly rendered as a good-natured innocent by the actress Brittany Burch.)  However, these things did not impact me as satisfyingly as they might have, because I could not always say what Laura wants.

In books, movies, and plays, characters want things.  The narrative arc of most stories involves characters trying to get what they want.  Sometimes what they want changes throughout the course of a work, but the characters always keep wanting.  In Carmilla, I can expertly understand what every character wants… except the main character, Laura.

There is room, in the play’s opening sequences, for us to learn what Laura likes or dislikes when she is told she should consider marrying her father’s friend, General Spielsdorf (awesomely played by Brian Amidel, who is good in every Wildclaw production I’ve seen him in).  If Laura’s reaction were: “No!  I want to marry for love, and marrying a man twice my age is icky!”  Well, we would know what Laura wants.  But instead, her reaction to the news that she should get betrothed to an old guy is just sort of tepid and nonplussed.  (If, conversely, Laura were keen to marry the General, then Carmilla’s successful pitching of woo would force Laura to re-evaluate what she wants, which would also be interesting!)

"Unsure how you feel about me? That's okay. So is the audience."

Fast forward to Laura’s seduction by the interloper Carmilla.  How should we feel during the sequence?  Well obviously, Carmilla is a vampyre who wants to seduce Laura in order to drink her blood and/or make her a vampyre (a bad thing).  And Laura is THE MAIN CHARACTER.  And we don’t want anything bad to happen to THE MAIN CHARACTER.  Thus, by deduction, we can know to root against the seduction. 

But part of me finds unsatisfying the notion that I have to employ deductive inferences in order to know how to feel about what’s happening in a play.  I wish I knew what Laura wants, but I don’t.  Does she desire to be seduced by Carmilla?  Does she want to have a lesbian experience or relationship?  Does she seek only platonic friendship from her new friend Carmilla?  I wish I knew.  I don’t.  So I have to reason it out.

An aside: The professional reviewers of this play all seem reasonably sure that Carmilla is a work about “lesbian vampires” or even “steamy lesbian vampires.”  I emerged less certain.  It is definitely a play where women kiss one another passionately, yes.  But the instigating kisser (Carmilla) does so as part of a larger plan to turn her victim into a vampyre.  The kissee (Laura) gives no indication of seeking anything beyond friendship with Carmilla, and must be coaxed along every step of the way.  There is no Aha!-moment when Laura says, “You have seduced me!  I am won over!  Now let’s be lesbian partners/have sex/etc.”  But perhaps I am somehow missing the point.  Perhaps it is “masculinist” of me to invoke a binary by which something is either lesbian or not-lesbian.  (The many same-sex couples in attendance on the night I went to see Carmilla may have already consecrated the work as “lesbian” and it is probably beyond my poor power– or provenance– to challenge this.)  

Pictured: Lesbians? Maybe?

Despite the muddying of Laura’s motivation and desire, Carmilla has many engaging aspects.  When you’re not busy doing the mental math required to deduce how to feel about what is happening to Laura, the play is a hell of a lot of fun.  The special effects are bloody and awesome.  (Upon exiting the theatre, one can easily find oneself accidentally stepping in pools of stage blood, as I did.)  Many sequences are genuinely scary.  The fights are well choreographed and dynamic.  The sets are eldritch and effective.

Also– one wonders where, exactly, to insert a fact like this into a review– the best part of Carmilla might have been the musical accompaniment.  It set the tone perfectly, could be mercilessly and awesomely bombastic, and made the scary parts of the play even scarier.  It was great!

I am pleased that Wildclaw has dared to adapt a tedious and dry writer like LeFanu.  The experience of seeing Carmilla was, for me, superior in every way to actually reading one of LeFanu’s boring, un-scary stories.  I stand by my reservations about this play (it is doubly frustrating to notice that you don’t know what is “at stake” for the main character even as there are so many actual stakes on the stage!). Yet Carmilla is undoubtedly worth seeing, and I look forward to finding out what Wildclaw will do next.

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