Tenderness and brutality war on stage in “Let the Right One In”

Cristian Ortega and Lucy Mangan star in "Let the Right One In." Contributed by Lawrence Peart

Cristian Ortega and Lucy Mangan star in “Let the Right One In.” Contributed by Lawrence Peart

This review written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of “Let The Right One In” (playing through Jan. 29 at the McCullough Theatre at the University of Texas, as part of the Texas Performing Arts Essential Series) packs quite a bit of weight behind a vampire love story. This is no small feat for a Scottish adaptation of a popular Swedish book and movie, now touring the United States.

“Let the Right One In” succeeds in so many different forms because of the headiness and humanity underneath the surface-level horror narrative. Indeed, to call it horror is to do it a disservice, as it is also equal parts romance, Bildungsroman and complex exploration of gender and sexuality. This carefully balanced narrative can be found in the original Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist as well as the film of the same name written by Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson. (There’s also an Americanized remake, “Let Me In.”)

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In adapting “Let the Right One In” to the stage, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany emphasize the essential humanity at the core of its two protagonists — shy, bullied 12-year-old Oskar and the ageless vampire Eli, who physically appears to be a young girl of about Oskar’s age. The two form an unlikely pair and soon develop feelings for one another, which are complicated by the people in Oskar’s life (separated, dysfunctional parents and a set of merciless bullies) and the older man, Hakan, who kills for Eli in order to obtain blood for her.

As this might suggest, there are moments of gory violence and a few scares in “Let the Right One In,” from which Tiffany does not shy away. The extreme brutality of both bullies and vampires is staged through equal parts bloody special effects and heavily stylized movement. These moments of dance-like presentation are also used to portray the intimacies of the characters, providing a level of emotional insight that might otherwise be lost in moving from the pages of a novel to the stage. It’s no wonder, with this level of theatrical magic, clever staging and simple solutions to complex visuals that Thorne and Tiffany have gone on to pair with J.K. Rowling in creating “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Here, as with “Harry Potter,” children are at the heart of the narrative. Cristian Ortega, as Oskar, gets to the core of the boy’s inherent innocence, as well as its slow erosion, with a good dash of both sadness and sweetness. Lucy Mangan, as Eli, is much bolder in her performance, befitting the character, and proves to be deliberately, and delightfully, off-putting in both style and delivery throughout the show. Also of note is Ewan Stewart, as Hakan, whose disturbing love for Eli manages to be endearing at the same time as it is frightening.

In addition to the strong performances, the play boasts a top-notch design team. Composer Ólafur Arnald’s energetic, classical-meets-rock-and-electronic score, along with Gareth Fry’s sound design, create a cinematic scope to the entire production. That sonic-scape is interestingly counterpoised to the bare, minimalist set and costume design of Christine Jones and atmospheric lighting of Chahine Yavroyan.

The overall sparseness of the production allows the moments of special effects (designed by Jeremy Chernick) to shine through all the more, every bit as stunning as they are terrifying. That mixture of awe with terror, of the heart-breaking and the pulse-quickening, is what gives “Let the Right One In” its fierce, unique energy.

This dark, moody, moving meditation about young love, complex sexuality and self-identity, beautifully staged and acted, is not to be missed while it is still in Austin.

“Let the Right One In”

When: 8 p.m. Jan 18-21, 24-28 and 2 p.m. Jan 21-22, 29

Where: McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman Drive

Cost: $10-$40

Information: 512-477-6060, texasperformingarts.org

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