As Nina Auerbach put it in Our Vampires, Ourselves, “Every age embraces the vampire it needs.” Auerbach’s point that the vampire has long served as a cipher for dominant culture’s fear and anxiety surrounding liminal figures (from Jews to Blacks to gays) stands true in Joseph Widle’s Cuddles, presented by Arch 468 and Ovalhouse at 59E59 as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival. The evocatively named Eve (Carla Langley) is a teenage vampire, kept secluded – and apparently protected – by her sister Tabby (Rendah Heywood), who is also her only source of information about the world outside and of physical affection.
The play begins with Eve recounting a fairytale-like story of a princess who longs for a sister and who, unlike the King and Queen who hope for a prince to be born and inherit (“Because only sons can inherit a kingdom”), recognizes the “cuckoo child” born instead as “not really a monster at all, but her little wish-sister.” The story models Eve’s warped vision of the world, which is deeply influenced by fairytale, myth, great literature – and Harry Potter (“even though [she knows] bits of it probably aren’t even real”). Snippets of Tabby’s cynically realist outlook slip through, as the Queen fleeing the kingdom to “shack up with another king with more money and better teeth” indicates.
Cynicism characterizes Tabby, although the softening of the protective armor she wears in the outside world instigates a turning point in the relationship between the two sisters. The trigger for this softening – a man named Steve – is a slightly weak, if necessary, plot device. The contrast in appearance of the two actresses fits the contrasting characters nicely. Heywood is tall and curvaceous with glossy well-styled hair, sporting a body-con black dress, spike heals and impeccable makeup, while Langley is dressed only in dirty cotton panties and an equally dirty old t-shirt printed with faded cartoon characters. Her blonde hair is tangled and her skinny, convincingly teenaged frame, jerks and contorts in a strangely bird-like way, punctuated by the fidgety movements typical of both toddlers and teens (including some mindless “humping” of a table leg). Both women are superb in their roles and fire off each other beautifully. Langley in particular shows a commitment and courage in her embodiment of the disturbed and disturbing Eve that belies her youthful appearance. Heywood excels in the dry wit threaded throughout the script.
Indeed, Cuddles offers plenty of moments of real humor, even as this psychologically dark play asks its audience to contemplate both the horrors and prevalence of abuse. Tabby’s casual references to rape underscore that the seemingly extraordinary nightmare of Eve’s attic hideout is the product of a society in which abuse is statistically rather “ordinary.” The play toys with our concepts of abnormality and monsters. As she taps her chest and comments “here be monsters” it is clear that Tabby internalizes what Eve seems to embody. As a psychological drama, the play needles at the question of where monsters come from, yet never quite relinquishes gothic melodrama. At times Cuddles seems a little confused as to just what type of play it is trying to be, although it does succeed in entertaining and horrifying in equal measure, helped by the highly atmospheric lighting and sound design by Pablo Baz and Edward Lewis respectively. Without wanting to reveal too much, it is enough to say that Cuddles ends with a bang, a chill, and a question.