In 1922, when German film director F.W. Murnau released Nosferatu, A Terror-Symphony, a silent adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, he could not have imagined the afterlife that his film and its creepy lead actor, Max Schreck, would wrest from oblivion. In movies, Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu. Tim Burton named the debonair corporate villain of Batman Returns after Schreck, and in Brooklyn auteur E. Elias Merhige's The Shadow of the Vampire, John Malkovich played Murnau coaching Schreck—a real vampire—to just play himself.
At this year's Midtown International Theater Festival, Rabbit Hole Ensemble is reviving the legend again, in Stanton Wood's new play, Nosferatu: The Morning of My Death, the second work in the company's trilogy of Dracula-inspired plays. Morning is both a worthy successor to Murnau's film and an original response to it. It is not a direct adaptation of Murnau's film, nor of Stoker's novel. Instead, it is the first-person account of their heroine, named, as in Stoker's novel, Mina Harker.
For Morning's Mina, the cruel yet charming Count Nosferatu has one redeeming quality. He offers her the chance to cross borders and break boundaries—literally, the boundaries between life and death, but also the various social boundaries that imprison Victorian women. After Mina's vampire-induced sleepwalking lands her in an insane asylum and a straitjacket, the asylum director's wife regrets that "it felt wrong to put her there." "Had to be done," the doctor says, shrugging.
In telling the tale from Mina's viewpoint and making it a struggle between Victorian woman and her ordinary life-drainers, Wood recalls Francis Ford Coppola's inaccurately titled 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, Wood's deft, theater-style handling of the story and his empathetic excavation of Mina's inner monologue make Morning lively and haunting, if not quite new.
The acting in the lead roles is as strong as Wood's writing. Jenna Kalinowski's Mina is passionate without being melodramatic, sensitive yet never sentimental, and increasingly indignant. As the madhouse inmate Renfield, Danny Ashkenasi is frighteningly accurate. His wide-eyed ranting is zany yet natural, and watching him mime eating flies is nauseating. Paul Daily plays Mina's husband as a bland, irritating Dudley Do-Right, but that's exactly how Jonathan is supposed to be.
Matthew Cody, as the vampire, speaks in a gruff, gritty voice. The ensemble repeats his lines after him, creating an echo effect that couldn't be done better with technology. Cody's portrayal of the character is nuanced and three-dimensional, radiating both arrogance and alienation.
Cody's makeup (by Courtney Daily) and costume emulate iconic elements from Schreck's look—the white face, the black suit, and the extra-long fingers that taper into sharpened knife points. Thankfully, Daily eschews the outsize putty nose that Murnau may, disappointingly, have lifted from the visual lexicon of Weimar anti-Semitism.
Director Edward Elefterion's blocking often makes Nosferatu appear to Mina from upstage, his pale face and hands seeming to float in the darkness surrounding her. This reinforces Wood's suggestion that he is not only Mina's confidante but also her alter ego, the rebellious double that her husband and his society try to kill.
Elefterion's lighting design is as evocative as his directing. The lights, including some manually manipulated by the actors, cast their shadows on black curtains upstage, referencing but never copying Murnau's famous exploitation of shadow theater. Elefterion is clearly a director to keep watching.
This coming Halloween, Rabbit Hole Ensemble will present its entire Nosferatu trilogy. Until then, the Midtown International Theater Festival offers a great opportunity to preview the work. Like its antihero, you might decide that one taste isn't enough.