Atmosphere is everything in the dreamy/nightmarish world of “Let the Right One In.”
This young-love-meets-vampire-story treads an uneasy line between rescue and revulsion, but director Christopher V. Edwards and choreographer Alexandra Beller compose this production with such fluid, cinematic movement that we fall under its romantic spell even when we know it won’t end well.
Mishka Yarovoy, who was stunning in SpeakEasy’s “The Inheritance” last spring, plays Oskar, an isolated middle-schooler who is ruthlessly bullied by Johnny (Francis Otis) and Micke (Jojo). Yarovoy gives Oskar some adorable idiosyncrasies, including the sounds he makes as the rocks he uses as toys “explode” when they land, and the almost musical squeaking he can produce with his sneakers. He also makes us feel Oskar’s discomfort in his body, as he awkwardly flinches or withdraws into himself, even when curled up on the couch with his mom or when talking to the school’s sympathetic gym teacher (Dennis Trainor Jr.). But Oskar has no one to turn to, since his mother drinks too much and his father is only occasionally interested in playing checkers with him.
Oskar finds refuge at a playground, where he meets his new neighbor, Eli (Leah Hohauser). Although she smells like “an infected Band-aid” and goes barefoot and coatless despite the cold, he is grateful for a much-needed friend, and she recognizes his outsider status. This meet-cute moment is complicated by the fact that Eli is a vampire, a fact the audience knows since we’ve already seen Hakan, Eli’s assistant (the always compelling Richard Snee), gassing and slitting victims’ throats to feed her. But Oskar is simply astonished that she doesn’t eat sweets, and it takes some time before he accepts what’s right in front of him.
Hohauser is outstanding as the 200-year-old trapped in a 12-year-old girl’s body, combining impressive athleticism with a child-like wonder, giving this bloodthirsty killer a sympathetic edge. She worries about Oskar’s bruises from bullying and tries to encourage him to fight back. For her part, she leaps viciously on her victims, and later, gently snuggles up to her new “boyfriend” with an innocence that is shockingly at odds with what we know she is capable of.
Playwright Jack Thorne’s stage adaptation of the Swedish novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist (there’s also a Showtime series) moves with a slow, almost hypnotic pace. Edwards leans into this rhythm in his production’s opening moment when his ensemble (nearly two dozen strong — a blend of Boston University students and Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s professionals) breathe together in the dark before moving into their positions as characters in the small town where the action takes place. Choreographer Beller also smooths out some of Thorne’s disjointed transitions, using the ensemble as a kind of Greek chorus and creating the feel of a hand-held camera, as ensemble members silently shift the set pieces, moving them around in circles or across the stage even as the characters remain stationary in bed, on a couch, or seated in a chair. The total silence as the ensemble moves the actors in almost random directions adds to the unsettling feeling that this world is seriously off-kilter.
Edwards is also attuned to the physical contrasts between Oskar’s awkwardness and embarrassment in the locker room moments, compared to Eli’s agility on the jungle gym and her fearless leaps onto her victims.
A climactic swimming pool scene — staged in a truly imaginative way — exacts retribution on Oskar’s tormentors in a way that is as disturbing as it is satisfying. The final scene is also fraught, slipping easily into the vampire genre stereotype, and yet more chilling because we know young Oskar’s freedom comes at an incredible cost.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
By Jack Thorne. Directed by Christopher V. Edwards. Choreographed by Alexandra Beller. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project in collaboration with Boston University School of Theatre. At the Joan and Edgar Booth Theatre, 820 Commonwealth Ave. Through Nov. 6. $52.50 (limited pay-what-you-can seats also available). www.actorsshakespeareproject.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.