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Twelve Peers' Cactus 

A vampire drama with an identity crisis

click to enlarge Cactus at 12 Peers Theater Gray Box Theater
  • Cactus at 12 Peers Theater

You certainly can't fault Cactus for a dearth of ideas. 12 Peers Theater presents the world premiere of this play by Pittsburgh-based Philip Real, and to say that it's chock full o' plots is putting it mildly.

We're in a U.S.-Mexico border town where undocumented migrants slip into America. But aren't they in for a surprise!

The border is being guarded by a voluntary militia that is — get this — a vampire family that kills the Mexicans under order from a government henchman. The feds have developed some sort of sensor which can locate sleeping vampires, and if the family doesn't do the work, they're dead ... er, dead again. A bolder nosferatu would stand up to the Man, but some dark secret in his past has robbed Daddy Vampire of his moxie, so kill they must.

Meanwhile, there's another vampire family with a "blocker" protecting them from the government baddies, and they spend their time rescuing the Mexicans. We learn, through some quite abstruse backstories, that these vampire families hate each other like garlic powder, and wouldn't you know it but the son of the one falls in love with the daughter of the other. Will that love be killed by the families' hate? Now you might be thinking: "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." Except that she'd be fried to a crisp!

So ... from out of all that, pick what should be the main dramaturgical thrust of Cactus.

You can't, can you? I'm not really sure playwright Real has managed it, either. Everything in the play gets equal weight, and in trying to serve all the plots Real doesn't quite manage to completely serve any of them. Just as we become absorbed in one strand, we're jerked to another.

The weakest links are the border shenanigans, which seem like a nuisance to be navigated by the characters. Surprisingly, the vampire angle feels uninteresting as well. Real goes out of his way to make his vampires as middle-class and middle-brow as possible, and is forced to invent some not-very-plausible reasons why they don't use their vampiric powers to escape. Rather than menacing and powerful, they're all morose and helpless: It's like a 12-step meeting for the Undead. Real's desire to write a play about vampires is negated by the constraints of playwriting mechanics. Director Kyle Bostian could infuse a greater sense of urgency and desperation into what is now a curiously bloodless enterprise. (Sorry.)

Corwin Stoddard and Christine Starkey play the vampire Romeo and Juliet with lots of appropriate angst; teenagers in love are so annoying — even if they actually are in their 80s! And Tom Driscoll as a hot-headed vampire and a vile G-man brings much needed energy to the production.

At its heart, I think Real means Cactus to be about a family at war with itself. He's got some way to go to reach that destination.

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