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St. Nicholas (Review)

In search of innocent victims — critics and vampires

By Rick Pender · March 1st, 2012 · Onstage
onstage - st. nicholas @ new edgecliff theatre  - michael shooner - photo mikki schaffnerMichael Shooner performs in St. Nicholas at New Edgecliff Theatre. - Credit: Mikki Schaffner
Having watched Michael Shooner in a one-man, two-act dramatic monologue about a thoroughly nasty theater critic, I’m relieved to observe that I’m an amateur compared to the unnamed narrator of St. Nicholas, a play by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. Shooner’s character portrays himself as a writer without that much to say but who enjoys lording his influence over actors and theaters. In my experience, most critics actually love the theater. But not this guy — it’s largely an experience for him to bully people and freeload food and drink on opening nights. He enjoys preying on those who fear him.

So perhaps it’s only natural that he ends up in the employ of a coven of vampires. Whoa, you’re probably saying. That’s a big leap. But remember that McPherson is Irish, and blarney and storytelling flow through his veins. Several of his plays have been staged by local companies — The Weir by Cincinnati Shakespeare, Port Authority by Know Theatre, Shining City by New Stage Collective and The Seafarer by Ensemble Theatre — and each of them involves a strong fascination with the world of the supernatural.

St. Nicholas (it’s got nothing to do with Santa Claus or Christmas, trust me) is definitely in that vein.


After a career of hack journalism in Dublin, the critic becomes infatuated with a young actress in a mediocre production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. He quits the paper and follows her company to London, where he tries to convince her director that his Irish editor was the one who hated the show and rewrote his review. Lies come easily to this guy. But then he meets William, a smooth-talking vampire who needs assistance luring victims to the London house where he and his cronies do their blood-letting in a delicate but insidious manner.


The critic has no will to resist, so he spends an extended period frequenting London clubs and bringing back vulnerable young people — including the young actress he was so taken with — to William’s house. They aren’t harmed seriously in the way we normally think of vampires, mostly waking up with a kind of hangover. But there’s something sinister and sickly about their existence.


After considerable verbiage — McPherson masterfully describes the images of the vampires, sinuous descriptions that are evocative and attractive, but repellant in retrospect — the critic decides there is a significant, definable difference between vampires and humans. “We reflect. They don’t.” He doesn’t mean in a mirror (McPherson is surely playing with the traditional traits of vampires), but rather that they simply act on impulse, without thought. This appears to be an insightful observation, demonstrating that he’s begun to see the error of his own ways, preying on others. Perhaps it’s the beginning of his redemption.


That’s not really the point of the story, it seems, because McPherson revels in the crepuscular atmosphere he’s created and keeps the tale creepy and compelling. (McPherson has been elusive about the meaning of the show’s title; there is no overt mention of St. Nicholas, although references to the Elizabeth playwright Christopher Marlowe, who died near St. Nicholas Church in the area of London where the vampires live, might be intended.)


I do wish that New Edgecliff Theatre and director Brian Robertson had paid more heed to the atmosphere that McPherson’s script demands. The opening lines have the critic saying that as a child he was afraid of the dark. That cue has led other productions to stage the show in shadows and low light, with the actor wandering through the audience to tell his tale. I cannot understand why Robertson kept Shooner on a brightly lit platform drinking from a water pitcher. The script portrays the critic as a drunk; wouldn’t it have made more sense to have him sipping whiskey as he spun his yarn?


As it is, Shooner’s performance never truly lifts off — or draws us into the haunting atmosphere suggested by McPherson’s language. It’s clear that this piece for a storyteller to have his way with an audience, and Shooner does make eye contact and play to those in attendance, narrowed to three rows each (about 50 seats in total) on three sides of a raised platform. But the production never creates the mood that the script implies. This production of St. Nicholas is performed with an intermission, which seemed unnecessary. In fact, it interrupted the narrative flow, making it about 100 minutes long. I’d have preferred to be truly frightened for 85 or 90 minutes, never permitted to escape the narrative flow.

ST. NICHOLAS, presented by New Edgecliff Theatre, continues through Saturday, March 10.


 
 
 
 

 

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