Only the Undead Can Say, “I Love You” – ‘Von Bach’ Brings Hilarity to the Fremont Centre Theatre
By Melissa Gordon
“Von Bach, the undead being, is at least a little bit based on me. Von Bach died in 1888, and when he comes back to life today, he has missed the rise of mass media and the celebrity culture. He’s the normal one, and we’re the weird ones. He can’t believe we consume all this crap. That’s how I feel all the time. Sometimes, in a movie the whole audience laughs at something that’s painfully unfunny, and I just want to stand up and yell, “what the hell’s wrong with you?” Fortunately, I don’t, but now Von Bach can do it for me.” – Von Bach writer Owen Hammer
Von Bach, presented by The Next Arena at the Fremont Centre Theatre, opened on Valentine’s Day. Advertising itself as a comedic love story, I had to bring a date with me. We were both pleasantly surprised by the theatre’s cozy atmosphere, attention-grabbing pulpy posters of Von Bach parodies, the recording of “Monster Mash” playing in the lobby, and the outdoor patio with floral tabletops and candlelit seating. (If we’d known, we would have brought our sushi to the theatre!)
When we entered the theater, we were greeted with the typical horror flair—red velvet curtains and rusty props accompanied by a mad scientist’s lair. The seats even matched the curtains! This was definitely a Frankenstein/Dracula inspired show, no doubt about it. Von Bach pokes fun at all the movies about ghastly ghouls and horror time favorites like undead Mr. Frank and ‘ol bitey Drac, but there’s much more to it than that.
In Von Bach, Hammer creates a world where the fictional “famous monster” Van Bach has the same level of pop culture relevance as Dracula and Frankenstein. The novel Von Bach by (fictional writer) Elsa Jaeger inspires countless Hollywood remakes of the story about a 19th century mad scientist who mistakenly resurrects himself from the dead. Fast-forward to Minna McPheeters (Maia Peters), a contemporary screenwriter, who is hired to write the screenplay for a studio’s most recent rendition of the Von Bach story. Minna sees a love story within the horror, believing that Elsa and Von Bach were both real people whose romance was rudely interrupted by the undead. Little does she know that the undead are about to interrupt her production and love life, as the real Von Bach finds himself revived in modern-day Hollywood!
Von Bach intentionally pokes fun at the Hollywood machine, which has so many times before made horror monsters its victim. Writer Owen Hammer offered some insight into his inspiration during a casual interview after the production. He came across the case of Lugosi vs. Universal Pictures, in which the heirs of Bela Lugosi sued Universal Pictures for the rights to Lugosi’s image as the Count Dracula of 1931. Universal Studios argued that a dead person had no right to their image. The litigation lasted 11 years, and eventually, the courts ruled in favor of Universal.
Hammer was prompted to ask the question: what was it about these horror monsters that compelled a slew of Hollywood executives to constantly make, remake, kill, and remake these legendary characters? Von Bach attempts to point out the hilarious predictability and futility of these constant Hollywood horror revamps, and it succeeds beautifully in doing so. Yes, the monster wishes to destroy and pillage the world in which it lives, but what is society doing to the monster that urges him to react? The monsters are reused time and time again in plots that are often uninspired, and sometimes, downright stupid. Von Bach delights itself in parodying the fact that so much money and effort is put into these silly remakes that transform the monster from something horrific into something ridiculous.
Creating “another level of fiction,” director and producer Scott Rognlien use film clips projected on stage in an attempt to reference what the characters see or have seen in their own universe, but it is more often used as a comedic tool. The audience watches comedic ads for Coca-Cola, clips from past film adaptations of Von Bach, and commercials for the completed box set that includes all of the classics, including “Von Black” and “Andy Warhol’s Von Bach!” These clips are always relevant, and most definitely funny. I’ve seen many shows try to incorporate film projections or image slides during a show, but I’ve never seen the two concepts integrated as well as this.
One of Von Bach’s taglines should be, “No, this is not about the Austrian politician with the same name.” If you’re cool (read: nerdy) like myself, you’ll see “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” in this review and run immediately to the Fremont Centre Theatre, which is entering its 16th season thanks to the husband/wife Artistic Directors, Jean Reynolds and Lissa Reynolds. You may even go just to see this hidden treasure of a theatre, located in a corner of beautiful South Pasadena, where even the freeways shine with fancy lights. Go because you genuinely want a good time: because you want to laugh, honestly and completely, and enjoy this new definition of what is termed a “date show.” Nothing says, “I love you,” like a smart comedy about the rising dead.