A guitarist in blood-red Chelsea boots strums a duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh as a front woman decked in Brit punk plaid struts to the front row and belts out:
“We are The Preventers! And we are here to save youuuuuuuu!”
The play is “Such Things as Vampires,” a musical adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” refitted with a queer, female love story and set to a punk-folk soundtrack. And the rock-concert performance is People’s Light’s first production of the 2018-19 season.
The story centers on star-crossed protagonists Mina and Lucy, who are fighting for their identities against a host of male oppressors. Creators Zak Berkman, Stuart Caren, Jessie Fisher and Philadelphia theater darling Mary Tuomanen first drafted the script as a feminist read of “Dracula.”
“That word was part of what brought me into the project,” said Tuomanen, “writing a feminist take on Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula,’ which, in its legacy, has not been super feminist.”
Tuomanen remembered, post-college, performing a rendition of the original at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where the script was mainly interested in “stabbing women in the chest who have very low-cut dresses.”
Rather than using violence against women for camp or porn, Tuomanen said her script portrays the violence as something “very acutely felt and dark.” She wanted to build on it.
“It’s not enough just to avoid being tasteless, but rather [you have] to push things into an intersectional feminist world, which for me meant celebrating queerness, rather than a more gender-binary look at feminism.”
People’s Light cast a wide net to fill the play’s six roles. They especially sought multitalented actors and musicians who identified as persons of color, queer or non binary. The six actors selected for the performance are all making their People’s Light debut.
Meanwhile, the team of writers worked to unravel a novel built on glorified sexual violence. In Stoker’s version of “Dracula,” Mina’s friend Lucy is turned into a vampire, then destroyed by Dr. Van Helsing. He stakes her heart, beheads her, then fills her mouth with garlic.
“So that sets you up for all the tropes of doomed queer love,” said Tuomanen.
To skirt that cliché, the writers maneuvered what Tuomanen called a tricky revision. Lucy is kept alive, or at least undead, to fully explore her relationship with Mina.
“The same problems that everyone has when they’re queering a narrative are: How do you bend stories we are familiar with to our will and make them gesture toward the world we want, as opposed to the world that has been oppressive, isolating and shameful?”
“Such Things As Vampires” tackled the problem from all sides.
The production brought in Amelia Parenteau and Terrell Green, two equity, diversity and inclusion advocates who spent each day in rehearsal watching for cultural blindspots in the writing as they guided the cast through unfamiliar or uncomfortable topics.
The cast also held affinity meetings — talks about material that felt problematic and how to diversify the writing. The efforts were worth it, Tuomanen said.
“I can’t speak for the cast, but I think they’ve really loved being taken care of in this way and having so much internal vocabulary to use when difficult situations come up. If you’re going to do brave political material, then you have to go to certain places.” n
“Such Things As Vampires” runs at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, through Oct. 31. LGBTQ Night is Oct. 5 at 6 p.m. For ticket information, visit https://www.peopleslight.org/whats-on/2018-2019-season/such-things-as-vampires/.