The Carlisle Performance Space at UNM looks as if the total contents of the theater department—costumes, sets, actors and all—were dropped inside and tossed about by the West Mesa winds.
Prop designers mix buckets of “blood” and tinker with mobile walls made of opaque plastic. Musicians refine the soundtrack they’ve composed for the occasion, as lighting technicians hang exposed bulbs alongside gilded chandeliers. Female leads appear one by one on the evolving scene, a silk Victorian hoopskirt here, a skintight corset with fishnets there. Upstage, the title character affixes fangs to his teeth, pops the collar of his blue tweed cape and assumes a deep Transylvanian timbre.
This cast and crew are amid final preparations for The Land Beyond the Forest: Dracula and SWOOP, two plays by Mac Wellman. Though related in their characters and themes, the plays are distinct from one another in scene and style. Dracula is Wellman’s theatrical adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel—a Victorian-era metaphoric narrative of the notorious vampire’s reign and fall, set in the mountains of Transylvania circa 1899. The central characters in Dracula—Dracula, Mina 1, Mina 2 and Lucy—also comprise the entire cast of SWOOP. The latter is a result of Wellman’s jettisoned genius; a quartet of monologues the playwright crafted out of discarded lines from his Dracula script. In SWOOP, the characters are our contemporaries, speaking to us from a scene seven miles above modern-day Manhattan.
Independently, each play is an enormous endeavor; at UNM, cast and crew intend to show them together. On the same night. In the same theater. The project began three weeks ago. Making this chaos cohesive seems nearly impossible in such a short time. Especially because they are, for the most part, undergraduate students just learning the craft.
Enter Bill Walters, the director and theater department’s new head of performance. His creative vision is responsible for this spectacular mess—and for leading the collaborative efforts that will put it all in order. Among his innovative confederates are faculty members Dorothy Baca, Christopher Sousa-Wynn, Bill Liotta and Richard Hess. Walters also enlisted the musical leadership of local composer and sound designer Bill Clark. The entire production is in partnership with UNM’s theater-company-in-residence, Tricklock.
The aim of these professors and professionals is, in Walters’ words, to “provide an opportunity for students to learn how to develop a vocabulary that’s actually integrated into the theatrical context.” Within the university environment, these plays become as much an exercise in practical inculcation as they are an artistic undertaking.
By all accounts, Wellman’s Dracula is exceptionally loyal to Stoker’s original, but it introduces a number of new conceptual questions. “The great challenge,” notes Baca, professor of costume design, “is that Wellman’s plays lend themselves to go in a million different directions. This is also the best lesson: How to rein them in and create a world.” No less, a world that shifts in time and setting almost as commonly as a person blinks.
It seems this particular lesson extends beyond those involved in production. The audience is presented with an elaborate, often cryptic dramatic scene—and the extraordinary responsibility of translating its manifold meanings.
Wellman’s scripts require an intellectual investment. Walters’ interpretations—visual, musical, theatrical—demand full attention. For example, Walters adopted the dual personality construct of Mina’s character in SWOOP and, with Wellman’s permission, extended it to several characters in Dracula. Without preface, you will be asked to follow six actors playing the respective egos and ids of three characters. Though your comprehension is aided by parallels in costume and the actors’ echoic delivery of lines, you are otherwise left to your own interpretive devices. As Tricklock’s Chad Brummett describes, “Two audience members could possibly see two completely different shows in the same performance.”
Walters places SWOOP between Acts 1 and 2 of Dracula. The continuity of characters keeps the audience in the playwright’s frame of mind. Yet the aesthetic, in this instance, is one of restrained minimalism: Black costumes and dramatic lighting, period. Here, you are given a sensory pause from the tremendous visual scope of Dracula’s chandeliers and movable walls and waterfalls o’ “blood." You also get the opportunity to focus centrally on the playwright’s poeticism.
Tricklock Company members Chad Brummett, Dodie Montgomery, Juli Hendren and Cyd Schulte deliver SWOOP’s schizophrenic soliloquies, which imagine the conflicted narcissism of immortality and bloodlust, from four vampiric perspectives. Wellman’s style embraces “imagery and rhythm, assonance and consonance, as they live in Shakespeare,” says Montgomery. This linguistic artistry is at its most vivid in SWOOP’s monologues, and Tricklock’s members dutifully and captivatingly honor it.
Altogether, The Land Beyond the Forest is an undertaking of monstrous proportions. Every part of the production’s extensive whole—from script to stage—is conceived with a single purpose in mind: edification. The theater is their classroom, and their theatric knowledge is expanded every day.
For the audience, in the course of one very intense evening, it may appear more confusing than clarifying. Drama is rarely easy. Get your thinking cap, a babysitter (this one is absolutely not for the children) and a double shot of espresso and go support the student actors in Dracula—they're fabulous. If you keep one eye forward through the visual insanity of Act 1 and one backward through the relative vulgarity of Act 2, you can center your focus on the clean brilliance of Tricklock's SWOOP, which is just where you'll want it to be.
The Land Beyond the Forest: Dracula and SWOOP
Carlisle Performance Space, UNM
Oct. 2 through 11
7:30 p.m., except Oct. 4 (2 p.m.) and Oct. 11 (2 and 6 p.m.)
Tickets $15, $10 faculty and seniors, $8 staff and students