Chicago Theatre Review
A Symphony of Horror
F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent, black and white, German expressionist film was the cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic horror novel, Dracula. However, since the film’s screenplay was unauthorized, the word “vampire” was replaced by “Nosferatu,” Romanian for a repugnant, unclean one; and the main character’s name was changed to Count Orlok. However, set in 1938 Germany, instead of Great Britain in the 1890’s, the film is very similar to Stoker’s story.
In this version, Stoker’s fictional hero, Jonathan Harker, becomes Thomas Hutter, a solicitor directed by his employer to travel to the remote Carpathian Mountains in order to personally complete a very profitable real estate transaction with their client, the mysterious Count Orlok. Hutter leaves his lovely wife Ellen in Germany as he travels to the Count’s medieval castle. At a rural inn that night, Hutter finds that the very name of “Orlok” evokes fear among the superstitious local peasants. While in his room he finds an old book explaining the vampire legend and decides to take it with him.
Late the following night Thomas finds himself at Castle Orlok, where he finally meets his host. Although the Count chooses not to join Hutter for dinner, when the young man accidentally injures his finger while cutting a piece of meat, Orlok can’t help but suck the blood from his guest’s wound. Back in his room, Hutter begins reading the book he borrowed and, finding many similarities between the Nosferatu and Count Orlok, he starts to suspect that his life is in danger.
The Silent Theatre Company, which has been performing at various venues around Chicago since 2005 has, through their various projects, aspired to “create a universal language, one gesture at a time.” The diversity of past productions have included “Lulu,” “A Charlie Chaplin Christmas,” “Noir: City of Big Shoulders” and “A Christmas Carol: the Silent Bah-Humbug.” Many, such as this current offering, are inspired by the look and style of the silent film and create all costumes, set pieces and even the actors‘ makeup from a black, white and gray palette. But one mission has remained constant throughout their ten years of successful, original performance pieces: Silent Theatre’s unique productions “create the importance of words unsaid; of how, without speaking, we speak to everyone.”
Adapted and directed by original company member Brendan Balfe, his current production offers a wonderful introduction to this imaginative theatre company and provides a one-of-a-kind, entertaining Halloween treat. Jeremy Campbell and Eli Groves’ sparse, economical set, framed in black draperies allows the actors, with the assistance of Chloe Honeyman-Blaede’s artistic lighting design, to often appear out of nowhere. Diane Hamm and Glenese Hand have created costumes and makeups (particularly the special effects for Count Orlok) that replicate the look and color scheme of the original silent movie. John Urban’s masterful piano accompaniment beautifully evokes the necessary motifs and moods for this horror story, while Victor Holstein’s projection designs artistically supply the necessary captions and cinematic atmosphere. Rodolfo Polanco Casasola’s beautiful artwork displayed around the theatre lobby and featured in the program precisely captures the essence of this production.
Mr. Balfe’s adaptation is faithful to Murnau’s silent film, upon which this play is based. He’s eliminated most of the unnecessary minutiae, allowing the primary characters to tell this horror story. His cast handles everything quite well, especially Nick Leininger, who so eerily resembles Max Schreck’s Count Orlok it’s as if he’s actually stepped out of the film. His evil character simply drips menace and unholy hunger. Evan Sierminski and Manya Niman stylistically convey, through exaggerated facial expression and gestures, the love, shock and ultimate terror necessary for Thomas and Ellen Hutter.
The only problem with this production is that, as an adaptation of a silent film, the audience buys into and expects, except for the wonderful musical accompaniment, complete silence. This absence of sound is partly responsible for the play’s frightening atmosphere. There are, however, moments when maniacal laughter, screams and loud gasps are emitted by some of the actors. These have a jarring effect and take the playgoer out of the moment. Sound is unnecessary in this production and only destroys the wonderful illusion that the audience is watching a silent movie that’s come to life.
What a perfect way to get into the spirit of Halloween, as well as to appreciate how completely and economically a story can be told and a mood created without words. Brendan Balfe’s stylish, emotionally potent production, which is both unique and exciting, is just waiting to chill audiences within the silence of a scream and the shadows of the night.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 19-November 23 by the Silent Theatre Company at the Prop Theatre, 3502 N. Elston,Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Prop Theatre box office or by visiting www.silenttheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.