You can’t go back to Constantinople, the song cautions. And anyway, according to 500-year-old Crusades survivor Michael von Siebenburg, “Christendom isn’t what it used to be.” What is? A man accepts that uncovering the secret to life everlasting means leaving behind all he once had. But now, not even the tender meat of the innocents sounds good to the immortal anti-hero of Tony Award-winning playwright Greg Kotis’s smart dark comedy, which asks serious questions about the nature of the soul with a winking bite.
Directed by Kip Fagan, “Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards” premiered Saturday at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays. The play will enjoy an extended run through April 15 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.
Melting is how vampires die their final death in this askew look at a couple of Austrian crusaders who discover during battle that the flesh of their fallen brothers not only tastes pretty good (tenderized and seasoned) but that it keeps them young after they return home. Fast-forward half a millennium and Michael von Siebenburg (Rufus Collins) lives in a rent-controlled city apartment and courts an endless parade of victims, supplied by his wingman Sammy (Micah Stock), with old-world charm.
Despite being a vampire—one of the sexier creatures of the night—it turns out ranting about Turkish infidels isn’t the first-date banter it used to be. Michael’s losing his touch, which makes it harder to kill. If he loses his taste for the ritual, he and Sammy will starve.
Kotis inflects his script with a romping, knowing silliness—the “googly-eyes” method that Sammy uses to transfix Michael’s victims, a sprinkling of “True Blood” and “Twilight” jokes—for a tone that owes as much of a debt to comedies like Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” or even “A Polish Vampire in Burbank” as it does to true horror. German idioms and portmanteaus (never not funny) abound, and the constant friction between their ancient lives and the contemporary world offers plenty of levity.
And yet Kotis wisely sidesteps the well-trod territory of monster camp. Michael suffers from visions—or are they visits from der Unterwelt?—of his dead wife Maria (Caralyn Kozlowski) and bombastic Otto (John Ahlin), his fallen comrade-in-arms, both locked in battle for his soul. Kotis asks the ultimate questions of violent men who have lived long lives built on the blood of others. Is survival all that there is, or is the body (even an exceedingly well-preserved body) a vessel for something that can live on even after the mortal coil expires? Is redemption possible? What of humanity survives in the wake of brutal acts?
Excellent performances bring Kotis’s supernatural characters to life without a trace of disbelief. Collins and Stock enjoy an the easy comedic chemistry of centuries-old partners, and Stock’s cold, louche charm is a perfect foil to Collins’ disheveled, sympathetic melancholy. Ariana Venturi and Laura Heisler both play victims, but when they return as police officers they embody the best of the buddy cop conventions.
Thanks to the design team, the show looks and sounds fabulous, too. The opening sequence takes us into war, the Ottoman siege of Constantinople suggested through a perfect marriage of lights (Brian J. Lilienthal) and sound (Matt Callahan) against the backdrop of Michael B. Raiford’s smashing set—medieval castle walls, torch-lit, looming behind Michael’s shabby, old-fashioned apartment. The span of centuries represented, from Otto’s Crusader battle gear to Sammy’s urban chic, allow for a variety of on-point costumes (Lorraine Venberg) and wigs (Heather Fleming). And as for what prop designer Seán McArdle used to create the dish Sammy takes “just a little taste” of in the first act? Some secrets are best buried on the field.