Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Let the Right One In
Stray Cat Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Toxic Avenger and Sisters in Law


Brittney Watson
Photo by John Groseclose
At first glance, Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist's bestselling 2004 novel "Let the Right One In" and the highly regarded 2008 film of the same name, which he adapted for the screen, may look simply like another retread of the familiar vampire story. But the beauty in Lindqvist's work is how it uses loneliness and the vacant feelings of lost, emotionally neglected youth to depict the similarities between a young bullied boy and the vampire girl he befriends. While the theatrical adaptation may lack some of the shocks and realistic cinematic special effects from the film that you can't truly duplicate on stage, and includes a few plot holes and undeveloped thoughts, it still has enough eerie moments that resonate and characters you care about. Stray Cat Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of the play in a production full of bleakness, with beautiful performances by Brittney Watson and Nathaniel Smith as the unlikely friends.

Jack Thorne, who won a Tony for co-authoring with J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany the highly successful play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has adapted Lindqvist's work for the stage and he sticks pretty close to the novel and film's main plot points. The fairly simple story focuses on the friendship that develops between shy teenager Oskar and Eli, the lonely, centuries old, vampire girl who has just moved into the apartment next door with her older protector Hakan. The play is a series of short scenes that depict how Hakan kills strangers in order to provide blood to Eli, how Oskar is continually bullied at school, and how his divorced parents shift between being absent, overly needy, and resentful. It's no wonder that outsiders Eli and Oskar find similarities in their lives.

While Thorne's script doesn't fully flesh out Eli's relationship with Hakan or Oskar's with his parents, and also brings up a few small questions that are never truly answered, director Ron May derives refined performances from his cast and does well in not rushing the action, which allows the relationship between Eli and Oskar to grow organically in scenes that are well paced. May also lets the tension slowly build while keeping the creepy moments and eerie atmosphere always present.

Brittney Watson and Nathaniel Smith are incredibly good as Eli and Oskar. They deliver distinguished portrayals of these two awkward social butterflies. Watson is both mysterious and intriguing yet full of sadness as Eli, while Smith clearly depicts the innocence of a boy who is tired of being bulled and is somewhat needy in his desire to find a connection with someone. They both desperately want to find a friend, and the desperation is palpable from the actors' clear portrayals. Together they create many touching moments of the friendship, love and trust that develop for this unorthodox couple—two lost souls who, it seems, have finally found their soul mate. Smith was a last minute replacement in the part but you'd hardly notice from his clear, distinguished performance.

Duane Daniels doesn't have many lines of dialogue but his facial expressions say everything we need to know about Hakan, who kills for the young girl he loves but has deep regret in doing. His desire to have some sense of closeness to Eli is what drives him to continually risk his life to kill for her. Daniels' ability to deliver expressions of sadness, desperation, regret, and desire at the same time is quite remarkable.

In supporting parts, Brandon Caraco and Chase Zeiner are good as the school bullies, with Caraco the cocky leader and Zeiner the follower who has moments of resentment for his bad behavior. Kathleen Berger is effective as Oskar's vacant mother, who is prone to drink to wash away her problems, and Scott Hyder brings a strong sense of duty and responsibility as the gym coach at Oskar's school and an official who is trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious killings in town. Kaivan Mayelzadeh and Alex Kass round out the cast in several roles with Kass also providing the realistic fight choreography.

Aaron Sheckler's set design does well in depicting the cold, bleak, and dark locales, with the use of only some large poles that resemble white birch trees, patches of snow on the ground, a jungle gym set-up, a row of lockers, and a raised platform for some of the interior scenes. The bleak and atmospheric lighting and sound designs by Dallas Robert Nichols and Pete Bish help to successfully portray the cold and creepy surroundings, and Maci Cae Hosler's costumes are character specific. While there are several moments of horror in the piece, and plenty of blood, the staging of those scenes, while highly theatrical, isn't always effective or entirely shocking. However, I'm not quite sure how some of these scenes could ever be done realistically on stage.

While the stage adaptation of Let the Right One In may be slightly confusing for anyone who hasn't seen the film, due to the abstract settings and somewhat underwritten supporting characters, the need of friendship and the desire to survive is quite clear. Stray Cat Theatre's production features strong lead performances that are full of sadness and also a glimmer of hope, beautifully bringing to the stage this dark, sad tale of the ultimate outsiders who just want to be invited in vibrantly to life.

Stray Cat Theatre's Let the Right One In, through May 4th, 2019, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-227-1766 or visiting straycattheatre.org

Director: Ron May
Assistant Director: Heather Lee Harper
Fight Choreography: Alex Kass
Stage Manager: Amanda Keegan
Scenic Design: Aaron Sheckler
Costume Design: Maci Cae Hosler
Lighting/Media Design: Dallas Robert Nichols
Sound Design: Pete Bish
Property Design: Natalie Ward
Special FX: Mary Townsend

Cast:
Eli: Brittney Watson
Oskar: Nathaniel Smith
Hakan: Duane Daniels
Jonny: Brandon Caraco
Micke: Chase Zeiner
Kurt / Jocke / Nils / Dad / Stefan: Kaivan Mayelzadeh
Halmberg / Mr. Avila: Scott Hyder
Jimmy / Torkel / Janne: Alex Kass
Mom: Kathleen Berger


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