Preternatural Histrionics 

Shotgun's Vampires is a mostly funny meditation.

Poet, painter, and dramatist Harry Kondoleon must not have thought much of my kind. The Vampires, now being staged by the Shotgun Players with company dramaturge Joanie McBrien making an assured directorial debut, is a nastily funny meditation on intellectualism, family, and personal responsibility that features an amoral theater critic as the protagonist. Ian sees nothing wrong in panning his brother's first play and refers to his apparent role in an actor's suicide as "more a civic duty than an act of wickedness." So it's natural that when he wants to explore evil as "the transcendent state of being" in more detail, he decides to become a vampire. The problem is, nobody takes him seriously. His family members all have secrets of their own, and as their secrets unfold (or, more accurately, are blurted out), we grow numb to their awfulness -- infidelities, neglect, pedophilia -- until the worst thing a character can admit to is that he never actually loved his wife.

University of Michigan English professor Thomas Foster has written the wonderful How to Read Literature Like a Professor for everyone who feels they missed something in their lit classes. I highly recommend it -- it's funny, clear, and very accessible. His chapter, Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires, explains how fictional vampires are more than just bloodsuckers. "It's also about things other than literal vampirism: selfishness, exploitation, a refusal to respect the autonomy of others." All of these factors are visible in Kondoleon's play, and become more pronounced as Ian's brother Ed bullies Ian into rewriting the play into something that might be successful. Soon the whole family is in on it, revealing themselves not only as vampires, but a host of other monsters, notably harpies and werewolves.

Shotgun's Patrick Dooley is usually too busy running his company to act, so it's good to see him have some fun as the smart, probing, gleefully amoral theater critic. Ian hasn't got a kind word for anyone -- "I hate everything," he explains; "I've decided to become indiscriminate" -- and when he does seem to be softening toward the others, we're never sure if it's real or a trick. Ian turns his wife's skirt into a cape, demands that someone run to the butcher for blood, and unsuccessfully menaces family members who aren't even slightly afraid of him. Ian's wanna-be fashion designer wife, CC, is played by Beth Donohue, she of the rich voice. Donohue can make a smirk speak volumes, so when CC howls "I don't need a divorce, I need a tetanus shot!" it's that much funnier. Dave Maier and Kimberly Wilday are Ed and Pat, Ian's hulking, jingoistic brother and shrill, self-absorbed sister-in-law.

Niece Zivia is classic vampire bait, but she isn't: Young and virginal, yet far from innocent, she does a quaky marionette-like dance to Screamin' Jay Hawkins singing "I Put a Spell on You" and shoots up in her uncle's living room. Nina Auslander handles the difficult task of being a difficult teen well, managing to capture the adolescent struggle between trying to please and trying to be autonomous. Zivia may not be innocent -- she lies, steals, manipulates, and does drugs like any red-blooded American teenager. But something about her is inherently good, and she is quickly seized upon by the much older Porter (Robert Martinez), who's called in to spirit her off to the ashram to get cleaned up.

Kondoleon once said of his experience studying theater in Bali that afterward, "when you go to see some awful dreadful little family-argument play, you just can't believe you're being asked to sit there for two hours and watch something that's not as interesting as your own argument at home." Apparently his family's arguments must have been pretty entertaining, if the ones he dishes up here are any indication. These are the fights we might be having with our own cast of characters, if we could say exactly what we were thinking and still come up with great put-downs such as "What are you but a little heap of useless opinions?"

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