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Few of us exercise the memory much, but actors do. They think nothing of memorizing page after page of a script; I’m lucky if I can remember the first three items on a shopping list. The most impressive feat for an actor is the monologue play. No cues from the other actors, no exchange to keep the energy going, no breaks. And the need to get it perfect every time. Who else does this? Certain musicians, perhaps.

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Promotional photo for the 2011 production of “St. Nicholas.” It was brought back this year as a Halloween special for one weekend only. Source: CoolCleveland.com.

A few days ago, we saw Conor McPherson’s play St. Nicholas (1997), performed by Dana Hart in the Cleveland Ensemble Theater’s small space. Hart held the audience mesmerized for two 45-minute acts with his portrayal of a hard-drinking, self-hating, middle-aged Dublin theater critic whose mid-life crisis includes an encounter with vampires.

St. Nicholas has McPherson’s trademark mixture of philosophy, flawed characters, humor, sadness, and powerful, lyrical language (“Reason crept into the room and caressed the back of my neck.”) And let’s not forget the supernatural element. Vampires, it seems, sleep all day, rising in the evening to exert the peculiar charm that arises from their fearful power. People easily fall under the sway of these bloodsucking, soulless predators, and even crave their attention. Vampires are haughty and arrogant, considering themselves far above ordinary mortals, even though they do little to justify their existence, living as parasites. Except for a obsessive tendency to become absorbed in tiny details, they are apparently invulnerable. And their bite stings.

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Dana Hart, from the “cast and crew” on the Ensemble website. Click and scroll down for a short promo with scenes from the play.

It’s difficult to miss the analogy with theater critics, and McPherson drives it home. If this were the main point of the play, it would be an amusing trifle. Instead, it’s a rich examination of character, and a parable of human existence. The Critic is caught somewhere between “us” and the vampires. The generous, loving, humane side of his being is struggling to emerge, but as he tells it in Act 1, all his tender qualities are overwhelmed by the will to power and a numbing quantity of drink. Unable to write creative works himself, he gets off on savaging others. Until the day he meets a young dancer named Helen. And falls irrevocably, soul-baringly in love.

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The Critic’s would-be declaration of love leads only to humiliation and a bender slept off in a park, where he is found before dawn by William, an enterprising vampire. William takes the sodden, broken Critic home and gives him employment as a sort of vampire-pimp. Caught in a dreamlike state of submission to the vampires and their seductive powers, the Critic spends years doing their bidding. Until the day Helen becomes their victim…

Christmas is a recurrent theme in McPherson’s work. And so it is here, where Santa (“St. Nicholas”) and the holiday call up the Scrooge-like Critic’s memories of his love for his daughter. It’s his human side, and the only part of him that is capable of loving unselfishly. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Helen is somehow linked to the Critic’s daughter. In each case, there is something pure about his love.

Structurally, the play is sophisticated, with the Critic pausing at one point to break the dramatic illusion and comment on his audience’s disbelief of the vampire tale. There’s also an electrifying story-within-the-story, a fairytale told by William about a woodsman with a watch that can turn back time. Vintage McPherson…

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Before you see a show like this, it’s hard to believe that the power of word and gesture can hold you spellbound for ninety minutes. The production was not as static as I expected. Dana Hart moodily prowled the stage with his glass of whiskey as the lights changed color to reflect his emotional state. At one point, he expertly tied his bow tie while facing the audience, a feat I particularly enjoyed. His talent for the monologue earned him the role of the serial killer in an upcoming production of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus at Convergence-Continuum in Cleveland. We’ll be there. (For my essay on Terminus, click here.)