Monday, July 16, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Seventeen)

This is a series of posts sharing my ideas/considerations while getting ready to adapt Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the live stage.

Seventeen: "Expectations"
Adapting a really well-known work has many a peril involved.  Yes, fans will complain no matter what you do.  Purists gasp in horror at every change, however minute.  Regular audience members begin to nod off the more like a long novel any play begins to feel.  Perhaps most insidious must be the attempt to make any "old chestnut" fresh.

Many ways offer themselves for this.  One of the obvious must be to turn everything around.  Make Dracula the hero, Van Helsing the villain.  Another lies in shifting focus away from respectable Victorian values towards the more subversive, perhaps seeing Mina and Lucy both as the most victimized of citizens in what is in many ways a dystopia.  Eschew tragedy by turning the tale into a comedy of some kind--or put such into sharp focus by taking seriously the hint that Dracula himself is the greatest victim of all (after all, did he ask to be a damned soul, feasting on living blood and hiding in the shadows?).

For the record, all of the above have been done.

What much of the above have in common is drawing lines between good and evil, who is the most sinning versus sinned against, as well as figuring out who is the most victimized therefore in need of protecting.  Valid, certainly, as far as it goes.  Certainly in keeping with the world view (as far as we may glean it) of the original author!

Hence my decision--to avoid that issue altogether.  Is there good and evil?  Of course!  But in the world I look around and see, those two tend to be entwined together and often very difficult to tell apart.  With my mind's eye (or ear) the words of J.R.R.Tolkien keep coming to mind--about preferring history (even if feigned) to allegory, thus giving authority to the reader or audience.  Hence I tend to see Dracula more as a ghost story, an encounter of the uncanny from a past that refuses not to become part of the present (despite the presumptions of so many that such makes up the natural order).  I want a tale without an obvious hero nor a total villain, wherein people seek their best to do what they see as right and no one can possibly be totally right.

In other words, my version of Dracula will lack any overt message from the author (myself).  The individuals stories of each character will (hopefully) explore far more ambiguity, with no one ever being able to successfully claim to be a voice of authority.  All are right.  All are wrong.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Sometimes there are no good choices, and facing that deeply uncomfortable fact will make up part of the conflict for everyone.

Or so I hope.

To be continued

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Carmilla (opinion)

Opinions ahoy!

(spoilers too, you've been warned)

As some of you may know, I wrote a play adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic classic Carmilla.  A little over four years ago as if this writing, ZJU in North Hollywood produced this play and five other productions followed.  This marked a very powerful achievement in my life, one in effect defining myself as a playwright.

Harlequin Players
2014 production
Within the last year, controversy emerged about my script.  This coincided (I'm not sure this counts as a coincidence, though) with a furor surrounding J.K.Rowling and her reaction to attacks by fans regarding portrayal of the character Dumbledore.  One can get a good precis of the debate here.  I feel my own recent experience echoes that storm very slightly.  Issues involved seem important to me--about the roles of audience and creator, as well as the whole issue of representation.  It pops up in all kinds of places, such as issues involving Lexa in The 100 as well as aspects of the show Supergirl.

Probably the best source of highlighting the controversy involving my own play was voiced in this video review by the divine Maven of the Eventide (I am a huge fan).  In the comments section one can find something said by someone who directed the play and loved it, but agreed the content to be problematical.  Likewise quite by accident I learned of a big online debate via email regarding a community of theatre folk in New York and Chicago after a friend of mine shared information and links about my play with them.  They also had a similar complaint, although most of them admitted to having neither read nor seen the play itself(!).  For the record, Maven both read and watched a taped performance.

Essentially one major argument lay in seeing my adaptation as glorifying, excusing or even fetishing what they see as the narrator Laura's rape by the vampire Carmilla.  To paraphrase, since the bite in this context is seen as sexual and non-consensual yet with Laura enjoying it, I can be seen as a man getting off on the fantasy of a victim enjoying her own sexual assault.

Credit: Richard M. Johnson
ZJU 2014
Likewise another argument focused on representation, i.e. that in some sense my play equates lesbians with Nazis (I moved events of the 1872 novella forward to 1938, soon after Austria joined the Third Reich) or at least with evil and my attempt to make the Nazi character more overtly evil I was too heavy-handed for words.

I do not dismiss these reactions.  I do not however simply accept them without question either.  First, it seems to me an important point that my play was intended as taking place in a profoundly ambiguous universe in terms of morals.  My intention was to disturb, to tell what is in my mind an eerie and tragic romance.  Maven (and methinks others was well) tend to compare my play with the splendid web series also based upon Le Fanu's story, which re-imagines the tale as far more progressive and--vitally--more heroic.  I adore it!  But this is not my play.  Nor should it be.

Apart from the heroic vs tragic nature of these two versions I would point out a structural difference.  In the web series, a moral complexity arose in the fact the villain proved to have a heart-achingly tragic motive.  Understanding that led Laura to forgive and heal her, thus saving the world.  Honestly, this moved me to tears the first time watching it.  My own play, however, by deliberate choice eschewed the notion of any simple good or evil or any kind of straightforward happy ending.  Almost the only heroics in the play lie in an attempt by Laura to save Carmilla from Spielsdorf--a attempt which fails.  Likewise Carmilla insists Laura stay out of the fight so she won't get hurt.  Both actions have their echoes in the web series, but my play takes place in a darker context, a tale told amid the ruins of the most devastating war in human history about events inside one of the most evil and psychotic regimes the world has ever known.

Interestingly, I found in readings that Spielsdorf always came across as sympathetic, despite his overt identification as a Nazi, his donning as SS uniform, his ruthless murder of our heroine's love interest.  We are programmed by our cultural context to see the vampire hunter as a "good guy."  Hence I had to make him profoundly creepy in other ways for audiences to see him as an evil.  Honestly I do believe a problem some have in viewing my play is the notion of degrees and types of evil--because honestly isn't the evil of a predatory animal who must hunt to survive of a profoundly different order than that of a political system with modern weapons dedicated to the ideology of a psychopath?  Yet I get the impression some find this notion alien, and find the idea of any lesbian character partaking of any evil at all unacceptable on some level.

Credit: Richard M. Johnson
ZJU 2014
I recently made some changes to the script, hopefully bringing out that moral ambiguity in sharper relief--specifically by pointing how much human horror the Allies committed in their path to victory against Hitler.  My goal was to portray everyone as tainted by some evil, just as even the most evil characters show what we hopefully feel as virtue.  Carmilla feels regret, genuine love, suffers as well as harms.  Spielsdorf loves his country, is a loyal friend, understandably wants to end the depredations of a monster.  (Parenthetically, I find most actors resist exploring the dark aspects of Laura's father, for which I must take some responsibility.)

In that context, allow me to defend the "rape" criticism.  Even if not equated with anything sexual, the attack of a vampire is assault.  But part of the allure of the vampire is the Danger.  For over two centuries women as well as men have found this aspect dominating our literary re-imagination of the vampire myth--the attractiveness of that danger, that alienness which also means alienation. It makes for one reason we virtually embed an exploration of loneliness into vampire fiction, especially by introducing love stories into the mix from Bram Stoker's Dracula to The Vampire Diaries to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Not that all vampire stories do or should follow that model, but plenty do and for a reason.  But metaphorically as well as dramatically, a vampire without fangs is not sexy.

Credit: Richard M. Johnson
Actaeon Players 2015
The relationship between Laura and Carmilla--which frankly I see as far more ambiguous and even mutual than presented in the first reading of the novella (further readings--the norm for the period--reveals Laura as an unreliable narrator in my view)--is never ever vanilla.  It is meant to be disturbing, an encounter with the uncanny by someone young and naive who is never the same again.  Le Fanu seems to have fashioned his vampire story with echoes of Irish folk tales wherein a mortal encounters one of the Fey, who must remain perilous by their very nature (Tolkien's elves, while complex, prove significantly less strange or lusty than their Celtic forebears). I followed the original in my own adaptation.  Here the darkness is more than the absence of light, far more than a collection of negative impulses.  Like death and pain and fear and even things like humiliation have their beauty, their allure.  Some understandably flee when such approaches.  Others watch and keep their distance.  Still others wander along the edge, sometimes venturing inside--even as others either willingly or not become part of that darkness.  More, to have all those reactions in a single individual seems eminently human.  As a different video review of my play noted, my Laura and Carmilla play the game of submission and domination together.  One can argue with justice Laura must be at a disadvantage given her lack of experience, but at a certain point this itself becomes an orthodoxy rather than an observation of life. In this context, Carmilla hopefully comes across as a mentor of sorts to Laura--a disturbing one, to be sure but then that is the point.

 Much is often made of framing elements of stories.  I agree, for whatever that's worth.  My point remains that my framing of this love story as disturbing has little if anything to do with orientation.  I approach the story, as I believe many do in this day and age, seeing the gay nature of Laura and Carmilla's love as just another obstacle they must endure--because they dwell in an overtly racist and misogynistic place.  This last seems to me vital, and pretty explicit within the play's text. Alterations (mostly fairly slight) I've made for the third edition of Carmilla hopefully do make all the above clearer.

Many thanks for reading this all the way through and allowing me to get this off my chest.  Also many thanks to those who gave their opinions and feedback, which I as an author crave.  Hopefully I did not come across as too totally dismissive of genuine concerns.

Anyone interested can obtain rights to my play at Off The Wall Plays.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Sixteen)

This is a series of posts sharing my ideas/considerations while getting ready to adapt Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the live stage.

Sixteen: "A Girl Named Mina"
Arguably Dracula's most important victim, and the only one who seems to fight back.  A devoted wife, ending up with a circle of devoted followers.  Religious and benevolent to the point she insists others pity Dracula himself--yet is herself seared by the touch of a holy wafer.  Mina Harker (nee Murray) remains among the most commonly portrayed characters from the novel and the focus of most modern adaptations.


Not only modern ones.  The 1920s (a period with disturbing parallels to our own) saw the first of what
 ultimately proved many versions to have Mina herself destroy the vampire.  In F.W.Murnau's Nosferatu she does so alone, without any advice or aid of any kind.  Disturbingly, she does so via deliberate self-sacrifice, giving her own blood and life to save an entire city.


As written, the novel really  has only two (maybe three) female characters of any note--Lucy and Mina.  Lucy too often becomes the focus of what seems like all that is frail in womankind.  Mina on the other hand comes across as her opposite, everything positive.  An utterly devoted and obedient bride, for example, who fiercely protects her own with great (but modestly presented) skill, accepting men's devotion and totally unwarranted condescension.  


Wee bit of a peek into Bram Stoker, in my opinion.

In recent decades this has changed quite a bit.  In the popular musical as well as arguably the most important adaptation since Hammer's Horror of Dracula (maybe even the Lugosi version) graduates from helpless waif needing rescue to the actual slayer of Dracula himself, in both those cases said death blow delivered in pity and even love.  No real complaints on that score!  It proves a nicely faceted approach in many ways!

It has also become a cliche.  Dracula's one true love (often his reincarnated bride) has been done so many times it makes me groan.  Other versions interest me many times more, up to and including her portrayal in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (both film and graphic novel, the latter far superior in pretty much every way) or some stage versions, one of which explicitly portrayed her as trapped in a Victorian London which was no less a feminist dystopia than The Handmaid's Tale.


Apart from discarding the vampire and she falling in love, here seem to me the most fascinating building blocks for Mina in my adaptation:  She and Lucy are best friends, despite their class differences.  Mina fell in love with and was chosen by Jonathan Harker--a man pretty openly desired (in Stoker's original notes) by at least two other women.  She travels across Europe without protect or escort, then handles evidence of her new husband's possible insanity with calm precision and patience.  She felt genuine horror at the idea the Almighty might turn from her as "polluted" yet urged pity towards the creature who so polluted her.  She also demonstrates considerable intelligence, imagination and a strong will as well as genuine courage throughout the tale.

I would argue--as many have--this helps make her one of the most fascinating and compelling people in the book, as well as giving us a strong clue as to Harker's true personality.  Frankly, their marriage seems to me woefully under-explored.  Some might accuse me of defining this interesting woman by her husband but my view is that I'm doing the opposite--defining her husband by the fact she chose to wed him.  This works both ways of course, and opens up some powerful storytelling possibilities.

To be continued

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The playwright of The Resistible Rise of Auturo Ui never saw his show produced.  Just prior to WWII and weirdly during it then for years after the play proved too controversial.  Or not so weirdly, given how uncomfortable the central premise...

Ui (pronounced "Oo-ee") is a gangster in Chicago, during the Depression when the genre of mob bosses began to take its modern form.  In a series of skits/scenes, in many ways a blend of clown show, cabaret and gangster movie, we watch members of the Califlower Trust--a group of corrupt businessmen--try to make a deal with the seemingly incorruptible Dogsburough (Troy Dunn) and through a slippery trick to compromise him.  At this point the gangster Ui (Andrew Loviska) slides into the whole process offering "protection" for various shop-owners and businessmen.  Via violence, charisma, a total lack of integrity or scruples coupled with bottomless vanity and greed, we witness an analog of Hitler's rise.

One may wonder, where the controversy?  Mostly from the deeply uncomfortable criticism of capitalism.  Americans don't generally understand how the Third Reich was born.  They want to blame Hitler as some unique Satanic master of mesmerism, as if that explains millions of people not only voting for but collaborating with the man.  Or point to the word "Socialist" in the Nazi Party's name, ignoring the way captains of industry openly supported and profited from Hitler's regime.

That way, they (or we) can pretend it could not possibly happen here.  We can go on acting as if Hitler were a one-of-a-kind problem, instead of a particularly loathesome symptom of a greater problem.

Arturo Ui shows us precisely how yes It Can Happen Here.  Worse (in some eyes) how it already has.  More than once.

City Garage's production captures many of the tricks and skillful theaticalities Brecht worked into his plays.  We never wholly accept this world of an alternate Chicago, but then we aren't meant to.  The details jar because they are designed for that effect--not once should the audience ever get too comfortable.  Never should they feel at the expense of thinking.  When a murder trial turns into a horrific mockery of justice, up to the open drugging of the defendant lest he defend himself, and witnesses threatening the judge from the witness stand, we can hardly look away.  It stirs a dreadful fear based on an oft-ignored truth--the rules only matter so long as we actively protect them.  Likewise when Ui all-but-rapes a widow (Lindsay Plake) at the funeral of the man Ui had murdered, we actively wonder--how can he be stopped?

Just as we are supposed to.

The play may seem off-putting to many, given its over-the-top style and message about a subtle as a sledgehammer.  Others may simply agree with its allegory about America (including America today) and Germany during the rise of the Third Reich.  On the level of being smoothly entertaining, with a uniformity of style, and some kind of emotional climax, the play simply fails.  But that seems much like complaining a dentist didn't make you a gourmet meal.  Such is not his or her job.  Just as this play is not at all intended to sooth or allow anyone to escape thinking.  It is intended to disturb, which it does, often in ways that prove very compelling to watch.

Other standouts in the cast include Angela Beyer as a variety of roles, most obviously the scantily class Emcee, and Lindsay Sawyer who (like most of the cast) has many roles, up to and including a grimly obvious victim of violence whom the audience watches murdered (in a nice touch, from the angle it seems certain the gunfire cutting her down comes from the audience).  Others in the cast include Clifford Irvine, Michael Cortez, Nathaniel Lynch, Geraldine Fuentes, Beau Smith, Sandy Mansson and Trace Taylor.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 8pm through August 12, 2018, at City Garage, Building T1, 2525 Michigan Ave (across the street from the Bergamot Train Station) Santa Monica CA 90404.