'Nosferatu' Adapts A Classic Silent Horror Flick For The Stage
Before Bela Lugosi established the popular image of Count Dracula in a cape with slick hair and an imitable Hungarian accent, there was F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, the first screen adaptation of the Bram Stoker's novel. (Names were changed for the movie in the course of legal wrangling with Stoker's estate.) Unlike many of its cinematic successors, Nosferatu isn't melodramatic or campy. Indeed, as Roger Ebert suggested, "it seems to really believe in vampires"—which makes it seriously creepy to watch even today.
Crown City Theatre Company's silent theater piece of the same title, adapted and directed by company co-founder William A. Reilly, pays effective homage to the Murnau film not with a scene-by-scene reenactment, but by presenting a thematically faithful evocation of its essential plot and characterizations. Performing beneath a video projection (designed by Daniel Donado and Chris Thume) that includes some footage from the original movie and some scene settings—as well as dialogue and narrative title cards read aloud by an unseen Saige Spinney—a very good cast conveys the spirit of Nosferatu in wordless physical exchanges, individual and ensemble dance sequences, and pantomimed gestures. The Old World atmosphere is also enhanced considerably by sound designer Joe Shea's impeccably curated 19th- and early 20th-century classical music soundtrack.
Its bold subtitle notwithstanding, one thing this Nosferatu does not become at any point is terrifying. It elicits no gasps from the audience. For the faint of heart, it's fine. To be sure, many of the elements that make the original film unnerving are there for us on stage, but these are served up as preserved remnants of Murnau's creation rather than fresh horrors that might seep into and underneath our consciousnesses to plant nightmares. It's as if we're viewing this monster and his iniquity under glass, rather than encountering them viscerally. It also takes an unaccountably long time (much longer than in the movie) before we even get to meet the titular vampire we've all come to see.
Still, there is a lot to enjoy here. Alina Bolshakova and Michael J. Marshak as Ellen and Thomas Hutter, the lead romantic couple, are as attractively sympathetic as Kristian Steel is odious as the vampire's partner in evil. Bolshakova is also a lovely dancer in Lisaun Whittingham's vibrant choreography. The rest of the ensemble cast, taking on multiple roles, lead us on a charmingly hopeful land journey from the German city of Wisburg, where the action starts, through Prague and Berlin to the Romanian village where Count Orlok resides and then, after intermission, on the tragic voyage back.
Playing Count Orlok, Nosferatu's Dracula figure, with a chilly, almost inscrutable, austerity that shrewdly masks the character's insatiable murderous intent, Michelle Holmes crosses gender roles with ease and intrigue. In one of the production's most compelling moments, while the background video screen displays a scene from the movie in which an insect is caught in a spider's web, Holmes's Orlok manipulates a helplessly entranced dancing Ellen Hutter like a puppeteer or hypnotist.
Reilly made a good decision with this production to deliver Nosferatu without undue irony, exaggeration or winking references (except, oddly enough, in the opening "turn off your cell phone" audience directive). If ultimately our heartbeat isn't quickened, at least our interest is plenty piqued.