In Morag Shepherd’s two-hander My Brother Was A Vampire, the banter between siblings of Callum and Skype is often crisp, tart and sardonic but the music, lighting and sound design in the play are the elements that truly bring forth the darkness, vulnerability and brutality underlying their story.
There is nothing milquetoast in the outstanding world premiere production of the play by Plan-B Theatre, directed magnificently by Cheryl Ann Cluff and acted superbly by Sydney Shoell (Skye) and Benjamin Young (Callum).
As mentioned in the previously published preview, Callum is three years older than Skye. The play is told in reverse chronology. In the first scene, they are in their thirties, 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.
A striking marker in this reverse chronology comes through the lyrics of two songs by The Smiths: Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want (which some may remember from the soundtrack for the 1986 film Pretty in Pink) and Asleep (which appeared on the soundtrack in the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
While Skye says Please, Please, Please is a “stupid song,” Callum sings a few lyrics: “Good times for a change/See, the luck I’ve had/Can make a good man/Turn bad.” When Callum stops after singing a few more lyrics, Skye says, “This is why we’re fucked.” When Morrissey wrote the song, he said it was like a “very brief punch in the face.” Guitarist Johnny Marr who wrote the instrumentals was inspired by a song from the 1960s, Del Shannon’s The Answer to Everything. Marr said that song was so familiar because his parents listened to it all of the time, adding that its “spookiness and sense of yearning” fit Please, Please, Please.
Later, as the shared horror of the siblings becomes more plain, Callum sings lyrics from Asleep: “Sing me to sleep/Sing me to sleep/I don’t want to wake up on my own anymore/Sing to me/Sing to me/I don’t want to wake up on my own anymore.” Skye says.
“That song makes me wanna kill myself.” And, as in many other pauses throughout the play, the two laugh. Callum says, “The Smiths is the only good thing our father did for us,” to which Skye responds, “Never stood a chance.” Morrissey’s Asleep is complicated in its message, which includes suicide ideation. Callum is desperate at times for the hypnotizing calm to go to sleep for good. For Skye, it is the ability to fly, even if it means being stuck in the same landscape of fears, memories and frustrations. One could accept calmly the loss of the will to find hope and to live. But, as with many other songs which comprised the brilliant catalog of The Smiths, somehow there is still that small but resilient perception that there must be a better world where one can fly off to and share with those whom we care about the most and feel the safest with in sharing.
Shoell and Young excel in the theatrical challenges arising in Shepherd’s script, by effectively rendering on stage the symbolism surrounding vampirism, as the playwright has envisioned it. They are unique siblings bound by the pain of acknowledging the virtues of resistance and disobedience on their journey even when honesty is not necessarily the easiest thing to bear or confront. There is no sugar coating here, even when their deadpan humor is the counterpoint to the dispassionate sense of fatigue which shadows their lives. And, in each scene, as they become younger, eventually returning to their childhood days, the actors adjust their voices and cadences to fit the ages they are portraying. The final scene is chilling, as it should be.
The production run continues through Nov. 13. For tickets and more information, see the Plan-B Theatre website.