Fringe Review: “Renfield or, Dining at the Bughouse” the backstory of an obscure character

REVIEW FROM OUR SPECIAL COVERAGE OF THE 2017 MONTREAL FRINGE FESTIVAL

(Image courtesy of Not Kansas_

Bill Zaget (stage name Zag Dorison) is the writer, director, and performer of Renfield or, Dining at the Bughouse, a Not Kansas production. It is a one-man monologue told from the perspective of Renfield, the often forgotten character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an inmate at a lunatic asylum obsessed with eating flies, spiders, and birds, and who fervently awaits the coming of the vampire count to England.

Zaget’s script, based on his prize-winning short story, aims to expand on this character by revealing his backstory and the philosophy behind his zoophagy, as well as to raise moral questions about carnivorism, religion, and madness.

The initial sound experience of tolling bells and cacophonous electroacoustic echoes sets an eerie tone with religious connotations, which would be a hauntingly recurring theme throughout the play. Thus the performance begins, first with short episodes of movement, then followed by a long monologue, in which the audience is forced to sit with a character from whom they might usually choose to look away from.

The setting of Zaget’s adaptation is rather unclear. Stoker’s original character is set in an English insane asylum in the 1890s, but Zaget’s minimal set includes a plastic white and Ikea-blue stool, a plastic microwave lid, and a bold-striped notebook. There is no indication of how large his room is or in what time period he lives, which is disorienting. Likewise, Zaget’s costume hints at institutionalization, with medical gauze on his wrists, but he wears a long T-shirt printed with a skeleton graphic, which is more conceptual and confuses the time period. Nevertheless, Zaget’s costume, with thick socks and disheveled hair, gives the feeling of a poor creature on the cusp of madness.

Indeed, the seemingly unbalanced character at first fascinates and captivates the audience with his unpredictable movements and melodic, eloquent speech. Zaget’s movement subtly shifts between angular and fluid, timid and desperate, defiant and fearful. He beats himself. He poetically transforms into a spider using nothing but his physicality, and it is immediately comprehensible. His quiet, raspy vocal quality gives the character a gentleness, while at different times delivering melodic and staccato speech.

The writing is poetic, figurative, and euphonious, strewn with entomological terms and insect-related descriptions of concepts and characters. The script is written as stream-of-consciousness but reveals Renfield’s memories in a strategic order, ending with the one that changes our perception of him the most. There is little to no arch in plot or in tone, only a slow revelation. The real pleasure is in the language and its melodic deliverance, which granted some may find monotonous.

However, although the poetic script is enjoyable, it does further deconstruct Renfield’s character. Based on the backstory revealed, his diction should perhaps not be so elevated, educated, and scientific. Closed off from the world for most of his life, he describes himself as “a boy, impossibly old.” Furthermore, despite the actor’s deliberate inclusion of stuttering and slurring, the character exhibits perfectly coherent thought and understanding, causing one to question whether Renfield is supposed to be “mad” or not.

Power is the primary theme of Renfield’s monologue, influencing why he believes in eating living creatures, and why he is in a mental institution. Everything comes back to the idea that “the bigger eats the smaller.”

Religion is another theme of the play, specifically Christianity. Much of the abuse revealed in Renfield’s backstory is connected to the church, such as priests raping boys and being immersed in a doctrine of guilt and deserving what one receives. Therefore, it is no surprise that Renfield’s thirst for vengeance and justice should turn against the church, and that he should adopt a darker, more carnal master to serve than Jesus. “If there be angels, I’ll pluck their wings and eat them too.” He mocks the concept of souls, claiming instead the world of carnal life. He says, “My master is of darkness but has no shadow.” With a Jungian interpretation, a world without Shadows would be a world where no one represses their dark side. In “perfect darkness, shadows do not exist.” Light, or religion, allows the separation of good and evil, but in darkness there is no separation. This is the ideal world he pictures.

By the end of the play, the character of Renfield is so thoroughly explained by Zaget’s script, his philosophies comprehensible and his emotions justified, that he seems far from mad. His madness is in fact trauma. Furthermore, we find out that he is not incarcerated because of any diagnosis but because of an administrative strategy. This is all well and good, except that Zaget’s physical characterization of him is somewhat misleading, and the audience is left with a slight feeling of “so what?” With everything explained, every oddity fleshed out by its full traumatic history, there is little to question and nothing to ponder.

Overall, the play undermines itself by answering all the questions about Renfield, removing the mystery from an otherwise bizarre character. In addition, the lack of a clear setting and the confusing mental state of the character take away context from the philosophical questions raised. The play arguably missed out on its potential for exploring the historical treatment of mentally ill patients in asylums, treatment of trauma and abuse, separation of church and medicine, and other historical issues that certainly would have shaped the person of Renfield and our perception of him.

Furthermore, although of course much work has been done to dissect this character’s motives and philosophies, concrete details, such as whether he is educated or what his mental diagnosis is, were lost. In an attempt to make sense of a man’s oddities by creating a traumatic backstory, the playwright perhaps lost sight of some fundamental qualities of the character.

Though “Renfield” could use re-grounding and a more concrete setting, it is a subtle piece in writing and in performance. If you enjoy the weaving of language, then it is worth giving your attention, in order to judge for yourself the hitherto obscure character of Renfield.

Review by Montreal Theatre Hub Contributor Celine Cardineau


Not Kansas presents
“Renfield Or, Dining at the Bughouse”

When: June 8 – 17, 2017
Where: Studio Jean-Valcourt du Conservatoire, 4750 Rue Henri-Julien
Admission: $10
Duration: 60 minutes
Tickets: www.montrealfringe.ca | 514.849.FEST (3378)


Official Media Partner of the 2017 St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival

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Celine Cardineau

2017 Fringe Reviewer at Montreal Theatre Hub
Celine Cardineau is a multidisciplinary artist from the United States. She is going on her fourth year at Concordia University, studying Studio Arts and Theatre Design. At the moment, she works primarily in painting and in building props and puppets, but she also enjoys illustration, photography, scene painting, and costume design. However, her strongest interest is in collaborating with other artists, no matter the medium. Learning to give and to receive critique is a personal priority for Celine, hence her passion for seeing, discussing, analyzing and reviewing productions.
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