Noah Lamanna (Eli) and Diego Lucano (Oskar) in the West Coast premiere of the
National Theatre of Scotland production of 'Let the Right One In,' performing at the Berkeley Rep through
June 25, 2023. (Kevin Berne)
The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Let the Right One In, running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through June 25, brings forth a thrilling vampire narrative where gore is merely a pit stop on the journey to deeper, more grueling themes.
Jack Thorne’s adapted script from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel (itself the source of two movie adaptations) is manifested convincingly by director John Tiffany, with associate director Steven Hoggett, offering a sharply skilled kinetic smorgasbord. Much like the creative team’s most recent project in the Bay Area, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the production finds rays of light in the narrative’s darkness.
Oskar (Diego Lucano) is a skinny, delicate child who doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. He navigates daily torture by a group of bullies, and every adult interaction yields a wasteland of disappointment. There’s his mom (Nicole Shalhoub), a woman who drinks at inopportune times while offering little warmth. His dad (Erik Hellman) lives away from home, only participating in Oskar’s drab life as needed. There’s also a teacher (Julius Thomas III), who ignores Oskar’s muted pleas for support.
Entering this scenario is Eli (Noah Lamanna), who strikes up a relationship of mutual desperation with Oskar. While Oskar is 12, and at some point will approach 13, Eli’s age is much more static — which seems to allow for greater insight into the more torturous aspects of pre-teen purgatory.
As bad as Oskar’s parental situation is, compared to Eli he’s practically being raised by Mike and Carol Brady. Although not explicitly stated, some specific type of abuse has been inflicted by Eli’s creepy father Hakan (Richard Topol). It doesn’t take much to see the yearning and devastation between Oskar and Eli in their sorrowful eyes; while Eli’s pair are gaunt and hollow, devoid of emotion, Oskar’s pupils speak of an undesirable solitude.
Yet what Eli needs does not live in Oskar’s eyes. Something much more necessary comes into view: a scratch at the cheekbone, where a tantalizing morsel of fresh blood teases Eli’s perverse palate. But in order to give in to hunger, and a violently growling stomach, Eli must ignore the human connection that Oskar’s damaged soul offers.
The entire production is an exercise in scintillation. Chahine Yavroyan’s cool lighting design exudes a chill, as snowfall moves through hues of soft blue through the highly functional scenic marvel of Christine Jones. Yet the story truly soars in Jeremy Chernick’s magical special effects design, which is not for the squeamish. Blood drips, splats, pours and flows with high levels of violence, capturing live on stage so many harrowing touches that parallel the phenomenal 2008 film adaptation.
While the story offers many wonderful technical aspects (including a haunting soundscape from designer Gareth Fry that a few times dipped into unnecessary, excessive volume), the piece is led mightily by both Lucano and Lamanna. It is through the horrors of youth and their lack of agency that the story flourishes, their connection taking on both childlike and adult forms. There is the playful jostling at the candy counter with a less-than-amused cashier, or a giddy fascination with the Rubik’s Cube — and also a desire to lie next to each other and allow their persecuted skin to breathe uninterrupted.
Oskar and Eli’s deepest connection comes from joint trauma. The ironies of each existence is rich; unapologetic tenderness through brutality. Their contrast in movement is keen — Oskar’s cumbrous, awkward gait is a great foil for Eli’s more airy slithering through space. Yet they are both weighted down by unflinching circumstances and a desire for joy. That bliss ultimately concludes with a dark victory in the play’s waning moments. Bullies are only bullies until they get punched in the mouth — or perhaps something more sinister is afoot.
Let the Right One In offers much to feed the soul, and marks a powerful examination of live theater’s magical capabilities. Every technical tool helps reveal delicious storytelling, using horror to reveal deep luminosity. And despite their perilous journey, Oskar and Eli’s future just might be bloody beautiful after all.