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Monday, March 26, 2012

“Outrageous, But Shamelessly Fun,” Michael von Siebenburg Is a High Point of the Humana Festival

Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards

Written by Greg Kotis
Directed by Kip Fagan

Reviewed by Cristina Martin

Entire contents copyright © 2012 Cristina Martin. All rights reserved.

Ariana Venturi & Rufus Collins in Michael von Siebenburg Melts
Through the Floorboards, Humana Festival of New American
Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Alan Simons.


Let’s see…

It was the title that had me from the start, I must admit. I imagined something Faustian, something imposing and dark with Mephistophelian magic… And would he really do it (melt through the floorboards, that is). And if so, how would they pull it off?

I was definitely überrascht (surprised), happily so. The latest show to open as part of the 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre treats audiences to much lighter fare than I anticipated – silly, campy, hilariously horrifying at times, and yet sweetly touching in the end.

You might have heard that Michael von Siebenburg (Rufus Collins) is a vampire, but banish all notions of Twilight. The Austrian baron makes even Dracula look if not tame, then let’s say less like a famished serial killer. But ah, the (really old) Old World “charm” is still there in this urbanely pedantic, chauvinistic roué, who smarmily seduces the women procured for him in his signature creepy, hand-kissing way.

Before we meet Michael (or MAHy-köl, as his friends call him in their outRRRRageous German accents), we’re introduced to someone who actually seems to rise from the floorboards amidst all manner of clanging and mist: Michael’s longtime friend Otto (John Ahlin), with whom he fought at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Ahlin establishes the broad humor of the play, his solid presence and dogged hatred of “those coffee-drinking Turks” who pummeled his shins eliciting many of the show’s laughs.

While trying to secure Constantinople in the name of all of Christendom, Otto meets a gruesome end at the hand of the Infidel. Subsequently and not unrelatedly, Michael and the other men become vampires – not just the sort of vampires who’ll suck your blood, but the kind with a taste for human flesh. Short on gruel, they realize that eating their friends contributes miraculously to the smoothness of their complexions and their youthful vigor, and that continuing to do so will keep them alive – indefinitely. And their friends taste better, see, because they’ve been “tenderized” by Turkish maces, whereas the Turks have only been stabbed by the Westerners and are thus not nearly as tender. Add some paprika and some cumin, and you’ve got yourself eine echte Fleischspeise. Or something like that.

Totally outrageous, sure, but shamelessly fun. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Monty Python and the Holy Grail fans would feel right at home with the play’s humor much of the time. The term camp came to mind, which is defined in the 1976 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language as “…artifice, ostentation, etc., so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal”; the production pokes fun at epic and dramatic tropes and at itself, and we can’t help but be tickled, too.

If a lot of the play is purposely overblown and campy, Michael’s friend Sammy (Micah Stock) is übercampy. Also playing an Austrian vampire but one of the contemporary blasé variety, Stock’s intonation and exaggerated mannerisms are priceless. An uncannily good reader of people, Sammy chats up women to select just the right date for von Siebenburg; von Siebenburg, in turn, repays Sammy the following day with a package of fresh meat, fruit of the rendezvous.

Interestingly, only meat butchered in the right frame of mind (the meat’s, that is) tastes good. Jane (Ariana Venturi), Michael’s first conquest of the play, is ditzy and gullible, unsuspecting to the end; while April (Laura Heisler), his second, puts up a fight and dies angry. Sammy claims he tastes the anger in her meat. In fact, as women have become savvier and more resistant to von Siebenburg’s spiel over time, his life of seduction has become increasingly difficult. His thoughts turn to the good old days and to the one true love he has known in his life – his wife, Maria, played with angelic radiance by Caralyn Kozlowski.

Amidst spirit visitations and encounters with the cops (Venturi and Heisler each ably doing double duty) and with his nosy landlady, Mrs. Rosemary (the pitch-perfect Rita Gardner), Michael has an epiphany. It says a lot about both Kotis’s writing and Collins’ acting that in spite of everything that has gone before, we actually feel for the guy in the end.

Scenic Designer Michael B. Raiford has created an extraordinary set that evokes von Siebenburg’s shabby modern day walk-up, the walls of Constantinople, and the courtyard outside a city office building all at once, without any major scenery changes. Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting draws our attention to exactly the right place at the right time and always creates the appropriate mood. Those bothered by strobe lights should be forewarned, however, that they’re used briefly toward the beginning of the play.

The actors’ exaggerated German accents slipped ever so slightly at times on opening night, and the campy posturing seemed to drag on just a minute or so too long in certain scenes. All in all, however, the production benefits from strong performances in what really is quite an entertaining show.

Mum’s the word in terms of whether you’ll actually see any melting through the floorboards, but I will say that at play’s end, Michael prepares to leave behind life as he’s known it. “Let’s see” are his last words as he looks forward with anticipation to what the next chapter of his existence will bring. Coincidentally, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of Faust fame said, “Mehr Licht (More light)” on his deathbed, which might have meant something similar (or then again, it might have just meant that he wanted the shades opened a tad). Also, one of Goethe’s most famous lines from Faust is “Das ewig weibliche zieht uns hinan” – the eternally feminine (female) draws us onward, a concept that is true for Michael in more ways than one. So maybe Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards isn’t so far removed from Faust after all.

Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards

March 22 - April 15, 2012

Part of the 36th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays

Actors Theatre of Louisville
Pamela Brown Auditorium
316 West Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 584-1205
www.actorstheatre.org

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