By Perry Tannenbaum
Recent rumblings have reached me hinting that Citizens of the Universe may soon be taking its last lap around the track. As Nosferatu was opening last week, it was certainly disconcerting to hear that Charlotte’s most unique theatre company may soon announce a final season. Yet a possible flame-out is not out of character. Founded just over six years ago, COTU has always personified the restless energy, creativity, and eccentricity of its artistic director, James Cartee.
Hunter Thompson himself would have gasped in astonishment at Cartee’s hyper-caffeinated portrait of him in his one-man paranoid fantasia, Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, COTU’s signature production. Cartee & Co. ranged from Beowulf to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from Uncle Vanya to Reservoir Dogs, and from Titus Andronicus to The Princess Bride. No less restless than the range of Cartee’s interests is the range of venues he has taken his company to – surely unprecedented in Charlotte theatre history.
The fact that there are no real theaters on Central Avenue or in Plaza-Midwood has never discouraged Cartee. COTU’s guerilla invasions have targeted The Graduate, Studio 1212, Snug Harbor, the defunct Story Slam, and a warehouse loading dock on Central Avenue. Cartee’s explorations in NoDa have been no less pioneering, including UpStage, the Chop Shop, Seeds 100, and an epic tour of NoDa restaurants, bars, and coffee houses – in pouring rain – chasing down Jack the Ripper. The Beowulf at Duke Energy this past July was an out-of-body experience for COTU followers. We were all in seats you couldn’t budge!
No, Cartee hasn’t settled in there – or at any other place aside from Story Slam where he could become acclimated to the equipment. So COTU’s new NoDa foray, outdoors in the loading area of Salvaged Beauty, the community’s “music and art collective,” is almost as technically plagued as its maiden voyage into musicals, The Rocky Horror Show, was at Seeds back in May.
But it really doesn’t matter that much in Nosferatu. You wanted to hear what Brad, Janet, and their assorted tormentors were saying and singing in Rocky Horror, but in turning to silent film for the first time, Cartee mostly gives the silent treatment to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 classic.
Henrik Galeen’s screenplay was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with all the names changed and the ending deftly condensed. Cartee’s stage adaptation adds a smattering of spoken narrative, but it is not from Thomas Hutter, nee Jonathan Harker in Stoker’s novel. Through strings of journal entries and letters home to his dear fiancée, Harker was the purported author of our tourguide to Transylvania.
At Salvaged Beauty, it’s Professor Bulwer, the crucifix-swinging Van Helsing in Stoker’s original, who occasionally creeps across our field of vision, reading snatches of an eerie narration. Among local actors, JC Kingsley is only eclipsed by Tom Scott and Brett Gentile for the sheer loudness of his voice, so my usual preference for sitting as close as possible to the action – especially for outdoor productions – could be confidently tossed by the wayside.
The more compelling reason to move away from the playing area is the wide vista of the action, which encompasses about half of Salvaged Beauty’s considerable depth. While titles flow downwards from the top of a closed garage door at the side of the building, action is usually staged off one of the sides, near front one of the adjoining entrances. Even when I withdrew from the rows of seats at floor level to the platform behind, keeping track of the titles and the action was often like watching a tennis match.
At the macabre ruins of Carolina Theatre, where Cartee originally intended to present his Halloween saturnalia, the whole concept could have worked far more effectively, with titles projected above the action – or below it, if the rickety old stage has been rehabilitated. But the main problem with the titles on opening night was that they were totally out of sync with the action, falling awkwardly behind the dialogue or leaping even more awkwardly ahead. Worst of all, when the titles were allowed to languish too long, catch-up was accomplished at the expense of watching whole chunks of dialogue and connecting narrative scroll by at an impossibly blurry speed.
Mandy Kendall as Hutter’s wife, Ellen, takes the brunt of this technical glitch in scene after scene fretting over Thomas’s return from Count Orlok’s horrid castle and reacting to his bizarre correspondence. As Thomas, Bryan Green hardly needs any supertitles to fortify the purity, idealism, and astounding naïveté of our hero. We can see him absently cutting himself with a knife at Orlok’s castle and his host’s ravenous response to the sight of blood. Likewise, Thomas’s discovery of Orlok in his coffin, his fainting, his comatose days, and his delirium are all visually explicit.
Thanks to the make-up wizardry Kendall, Kingsley, and Cartee, Justin Mulcahy doesn’t need to emote extensively to plumb the evil depths of Orlok, nee Count Dracula. Oh, but he does anyway! Joseph Tenney gets a similar pass as Knock, Orlok’s man in Hutter’s hometown, though there’s already a craziness in his eyes worthy of the insect-eating Renfield, Stoker’s most oddball creation.
The exhilaration that an unabashed surrender to silent screen hamming can bring us is probably best exemplified by the minor players, all of whom get to dig into multiple roles. Whether warning Thomas of the perils of Orlok’s castle, tending to our hero in the hospital, or protecting his hometown against the onset of plague, you can count on Ervin Green, Michelle Lampley, and Mirachol Carroll to inject some levity into the ghoulish story, either as dimwits or incompetents.
Aboard the ghost ship that carries Orlok to his new HQ across the street from the Hutters, the levity comes from an excess of Halloween melodrama by the Captain and the First Mate – or it will when the titles roll properly. The interplay between the Innkeeper and his servant is already slapstick gold.
In fact, once the big tech snafus are solved, all the problems of COTU’s Nosferatu are likely to vanish, except for one: the nagging annoyance of Kingsley’s pronunciation of the title. Emphasize and elongate the third syllable and you readily evoke the horror of vampires and the nocturnal fright of Transylvania. Transfer that emphasis to the second syllable, as Kingsley does over and over, and it sounds like we’re dealing with some milk company in New Jersey.