Bruce Wheeler as Jesus
If you've ever wished Madison theater offered more sweet-yet-edgy plays about the love lives of goth lesbian vampires or slightly unhinged slush-pile readers, you're in luck. Mercury Players Theatre and StageQ have teamed up to produce Ry Herman's comedy, Vamp. On a cold night when I didn't feel much like going out, Vamp won me over -- and I'm a tough nut to crack when it comes to comedies.
Vamp blends realism and zaniness in a way that truly works. At first glance, Chloe (Molly Vanderlin) seems pretty average: she's 30-ish, reads play manuscripts for a living, and favors faded jeans and Dansko clogs. Sure, she's a bit depressed and her apartment is a disaster, but that's not so unusual. But hold on a sec: some of the characters from the lousy plays Chloe's constantly reading have infiltrated her psyche -- and her apartment. There's a louche, bathrobe-wearing Jesus, the "Spunky Old Gal," and the chorus of We're Hungry, a would-be musical about the Irish potato famine.
Then, one night at a club, Chloe meets Angela, a goth gamine decked out in shiny PVC, lace, red velvet opera gloves and black motorcycle boots (kudos to Rebecca Sites for a perfectly apt costume design). And did I mention Angela's an astrophysicist? As Chloe and Angela begin to fall for each other, their relationship is believable and the dialogue more realistic than you might expect given the play's fantastical elements. What Angela doesn't know is how Chloe will react to her identity as a vampire.
Dynamically directed by StageQ's Tara Ayres, Vamp strikes just the right comedic note. Herman's script is pop-culture savvy -- from Nosferatu to Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- without overdoing it or playing a coy spot-the-reference game.
The cast seems tight and well-rehearsed. Molly Vanderlin deserves credit for making Chloe's words and actions seem natural even when she's talking back to the bizarre characters inhabiting her mind and living room. Kristin Forde's Angela is an appealingly slinky supernatural love object. As the Spunky Old Gal -- the sort of annoyingly plucky geriatric found in plays and movies -- Katy Conley takes it to the hilt, reminiscing about her brushes with important women from the past, from Gertrude Stein and Eleanor Roosevelt all the way back to Sappho.
I liked it that Bruce Wheeler's Jesus was hard to pin down. Wheeler, who also wrote original music for the show, has not gone for an obvious character type: campy, sleazy, etc. His Jesus is laid-back, a little nutty, a lot inappropriate (for a Messiah, anyway) and, all in all, a quirky and unpredictable performance.
My only real quibbles with this show are the "parable" sequences; there was a somewhat wobbly blend between humor and preachiness. But, overall, I'd highly recommend Vamp as a truly funny comedy that will have you rooting for its would-be lovers. Whether you're gay, straight, a figment of someone's imagination, a member of the living dead or just plain human, Vamp is fresh and relatable.