In the 2004 novel, Let the Right One In, by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, which later was adapted into Swedish and American films as well as a theatrical production, a preteen boy becomes friends with a new neighbor, whom he realizes is a vampire. It is a fine example of a story that bridges motifs melded from horror, coming-of-age stories and socio-psychological drama. For example, the girl, who is a vampire, is initially enigmatic regarding the shell to protect her secrets even as she gradually opens up to the boy. Also, her gender identity is fluid and more ambiguous than what is suggested at the narrative’s outset. The boy’s emerging friendship with the girl eases the emotional burdens he carries. The adults in the boy’s life have failed him – his father, for example, is an alcoholic – doing nothing to confront or rectify the relentless hounding and teasing he experiences at school. Left along to cope with his problems, he occasionally acts out violently.
Meanwhile, the young vampire epitomizes a bleak solitude, practically as disconnected as the boy. She also can be dangerous, which underscores the story’s horror elements. When the boy asks if she is a vampire, she says plainly, “I live on blood.” Nevertheless, horror is not the narrative’s primary driver. The story takes the young protagonists from their isolation to an empowering friendship of mutual support, although it does not come without a hefty volume of tense, complicated moments.
In Morag Shepherd’s newest play, My Brother Was A Vampire, which will receive its world premiere in a Plan-B Theatre production, the playwright’s love of and intimate memories of this genre-hybrid Swedish story were ingredients for the creative starter dough for the two-hander script. It also is a departure from Shepherd’s earlier works, which are usually characterized as abstract journeys in discovering their respective epiphanies. The play’s run will take place Nov. 3-13 in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts.
Four years ago, Shepherd co-directed the Utah premiere of Jack Thorne’s stage adaptation of Let the Right One In with Christopher Clark, one of the area’s most respected theatrical artists, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2020. “I loved working on that project and it stayed with me,” Shepherd recalls, in an interview with The Utah Review. “It was just the feeling that I had never had so much fun working on a project as I did with Chris [Clark]. It was rewarding to figure out how to stage the horror and psychological parts through the dialogue and the experience was something I wanted to keep trying to do.” The production, by An Other Theater Company, also incorporated movement choreographed by SONDERimmersive’s Graham Brown.
Shepherd says that writing My Brother Was A Vampire was one of the easiest, smoothest flowing projects that the Utah playwright has penned. Every emotion and script element are distilled in the script. “At first, it was hard because some of the topics are very personal for me,” Shepherd explains. “But, then I could open up and give up my self protection in the fiction of this play.” With that, the vampire’s story from Let the Right One In serves an apt creative springboard for how this new play unfolds. Shepherd’s newest play also pays respect in a general sense to a university mentor, the late Eric Samuelsen, the legendary Utah playwright, who was fearless in penning plays which dug deep emotionally. He also had a knack for writing devilishly good, wry and deadpan humor.
The two characters in My Brother Was A Vampire are brother and sister: Callum is three years older than Skye. The play is told in reverse chronology. “At first, the scenes I wrote were all over the place and I had not yet decided on the possibility of the trajectory going backwards,” Shepherd says. “Before I had finished all of the scenes, I knew that it would be nice knowing what the ending would be like and then going through that arc to see where it started from.”
In the first scene, the brother (Callum) is 38 and Skye is 35 and in each successive scene, they are five years younger. The first scene (“the ending”) shows Callum appearing starved and gravely ill, while Skye seems in perfect health. Likewise, they are often at opposing ends of the emotional spectrum in that scene. Meanwhile, in the last scene, both are in the childhood years and this encompasses the play’s most dramatic and stark emotional moments. The moods of horror and suspense are portrayed through sound design so the persistent supernatural aura could be achieved with similar nuance and hybrid character that made Let the Right One In so compelling.
The play’s comedy drips in deadpan sarcasm, which anchors the sibling relationship as realistic. In this script, Shepherd suggests specifics about timing and cadence for the actors as well as the production team. On paper, the script moves like a rapid-paced page turner but in reality the beats, rests and points of suspension amplify the dialogue’s full punch, whether it is in the deadpan sarcasm or in stunning emotionally charged moments. “When the characters cry, go ahead and do that if it comes, but the rest of the time it’s something else,” Shepherd advises in the script. “When there is a pause, really pause, and the rest of the dialogue should fly. Scene changes can take their time and can be as exposed as possible. These characters know each other and go for the jugular, and then are extremely tender and sweet.”
“I had so much fun writing the banter between the brother and the sister,” Shepherd explains. “You might be afraid to go there, which is what makes sarcasm work so well, and when they really go for the jugular and are brutal to each other, it heightens the scary moments. There is that whiplash feeling that is so familiar in family and emotions but I also used humor to balance out the emotional tensions to avoid becoming too indulgent. But, yeah, in their younger years, it becomes more tragic so then it makes sense to be a little more indulgent in portraying and representing the trauma. The point is to really fly and be honest as possible.”
The cast features Benjamin Young as Callum and Sydney Shoell as Skye. Directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff, who also is credited with sound design, the production team includes Emma Belnap (lighting), Victoria Bird (costumes), Janice Chan (scenic) and Aaron Swenson (show art). Others include Liz Whittaker (intimacy direction) and Grey Rung (stage manager also credited as scenic builder and electrician). Performances (at which audiences will be asked to wear masks) will run on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., 4 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Take note that performances will likely sell out, such as the Sunday shows have already done. For tickets and more details, see the Plan-B website.