Regional Reviews: Chicago
OK, I'll admit it: I am a 66-year-old writer and former English teacher who is also a fan of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" saga. Despite writing that sometimes plods–Stephen King famously said that she "can't write worth a darn"–Meyer's invention of a whole new mythology and ethos for vampires is still the best thing to happen to these creatures of the night since Anne Rice. (Rice's novels have justifiably been called florid; perhaps the subject of vampires drains the blood from good prose?) In any case, I was (and am still) entranced by the four-novel story of Bella Swan, the teenager who moves from Arizona to the small (and very real) town of Forks, Washington, when her mother remarries and finds herself attracted to Edward Cullen, one of the members of a local vampire clan.
Because of this, I was not going to miss Otherworld Theatre's production of the new musical parody Twihard by Tiffany Keane Schaefer and Brian Rasmussen, though I did not go in expecting a whole lot more than some nostalgic and campy fun. I'm happy to say that I was mistaken: Twihard is indeed campy but, thanks to the talents of its creators and cast, it's also extremely entertaining. (You probably need to have some knowledge of the story for it to make complete sense, but then again this play will likely not attract many Twi-novices. (I will say that my husband, who definitely qualifies, visibly enjoyed most of it despite at times being quite at sea. And keeping his interest is never guaranteed even though we both see a ton of plays.)
After ordering a drink called Where the Hell Have You Been, Mocha–a parody of one of the book's famous lines–I settled in to experience whatever this was going to be.
Schaeffer, who also directs and designed the set and costumes as well as some props, opens the show with an open acclamation of its silliness (as well as the cult-like mass love of the books), as a group of robed acolytes entering with candles chant their adoration of the book, copies of which (with the "Twihard" title) are quickly handed out to each of them. (The quality of the singing throughout the show is almost uniformly excellent, as is the three-piece band playing Rasmussen's music, which features the composer on piano.) After this clever opening, two things happen that set the stage for what is to come. First, we find cast members laughing and enjoying the moment as well as ogling and hero-worshiping significant characters; second, we meet one of those characters: Aro, the vampire leader (played by Collin Borisenko). Aro is not part of the first book of the series–which we are repeatedly reminded by the fourth-wall-breaking characters is the sole and limited focus of this parody–but Schaefer's decision to make him into a narrative presence here a la a Shakespearean chorus is genius; this decision was very well-received by an audience packed with fans, and Borisenko rocks it (despite a pretty sketchy falsetto speaking voice).
Our first glimpse of Bella (renamed "Bella Goose" for some silly reason) is Rachel Arianna doing her best impression of Kristen Stewart's mannerisms, which, for the record, is pretty solid; if you don't immediately know why that choice elicited laughter and recognition, this may not be your show. (In the impression department, also solid is Cosmo Coniglio's caricature of Billy Burke as Charlie, Bella's cop father, and Kyra Young's effectively angry Rosalie.) Bella sings a plaintive solo number, "Sacrifice," which will become a recurring motif; Arianna's singing voice is excellent and later duets when she goes for operatic high notes show her off well.
When Bella arrives in Forks to live with her father, we see her first day at Forks High, where the students, understandably curious, sing about the "New Girl," and she meets people who will become a cadre of friends–but most importantly, she meets the "Mullens," the strange family of adopted children who reside with their father, Dr. Carlisle Mullen (an energetic and unabashedly queer take on the family patriarch by Nicholas Ian), and their mother, Esme (Vivian Vaeth, who also plays another matriarch, Bella's mother Renée).
(Why Schaefer decided to change the vampire family's name from Cullen is never addressed. Maybe in Twihard 2: Twi Harder.)
Chief among the Mullens, of course, is Edward, the gorgeous, eternally 17-year-old vampire here played by Casey Huls, whose Robert Pattinson impersonation is mostly found in his devotional (or devastating, depending on its intention) stare, which is on display several times. Huls has undeniable chemistry with Arianna, and watching them together working through some of the indelible beats from the movie (including the biology class, the driving scenes, and the moment in which Bella reveals her belief that he is a vampire, which includes a brief insertion from Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy") is a joy. This revelation also leads to two of the best numbers: "Skin of a Killer" and "The Lion and the Lamb."
The authors pay continuous tribute to the fans, even calling out fanfics and ships. Aside from several callbacks to favorite lines (many of which, including "Killer" and "Lion/Lamb," are mutated into songs), one of the most fun fan-service moments is the attempted hookup between Carlisle and Charlie (a ship known as Charlisle online). Both Coniglio and Ian play this with as much enthusiasm as if it were canon, and their joy in it is so contagious that you almost wish it were. (Coniglio's physical comedy cred is also shown in his characterization of Jasper, the only Mullen who can't quite control his appetite for human blood.)
The rest of the cast is also stellar: Ginny Weant is the otherworldly–hey, the pun is appropriate–future-seeing vampire Alice Mullen, and she demonstrates that arcane ability in a hilarious sequence. Lena Simone has fun as Bella's high school friend Jessica, who for some reason speaks in rhyme. Maxwell Peters, in a ridiculous long wig, is a fine Jacob, unrequited in his interest in Bella. But the showiest non-lead role is undoubtedly played by Trey Plutnicki.
Plutnicki's "hunter" vampire, James, is menacing from his entrance (interrupting the Mullens' well-staged baseball game), and he quickly becomes the main antagonist of the play. That status, however, doesn't get in the way of a fine number ("Hunter") and even a tap dance breakout (!). Admit it: if someone told you that a parody of Twilight would include a tap number, would you guess it would feature James? Or that he would later be joined by Edward? Both handle the surprising dancing very well and create a show highlight.
Schaefer and Rasmussen's work here sparkles, and Otherworld's production is flawless (give or take a tree falling down onstage). It may not have as much appeal to non-Twihards–though anyone with a beating heart will enjoy the music and the humor–but if you've ever been part of a Team Edward v. Team Jacob discussion, you're going to love this show.
Twihard runs through March 10, 2024, at Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit otherworldtheatre.org.