The Acrobat (Blood Ties), a bloody valentine from Unifaun

Unifaun Theatre side-steps transgressive sex and gore for its young adult variant with The Acrobat (Blood Ties), an LGBTIQ-friendly vampire romance with its heart in the right place, but somewhat lacking in bite

Hurts so good: Liam (Cody Hively) falls into the clutches of the brutal but wistful vampire Vincent (Marco Michel) in The Acrobat (Photo: Christine Muscat Azzopardi)
Hurts so good: Liam (Cody Hively) falls into the clutches of the brutal but wistful vampire Vincent (Marco Michel) in The Acrobat (Photo: Christine Muscat Azzopardi)

Unifaun Theatre burst out of their (dis)comfort zone with a bloody and sexy vampire drama that is, however, closer to the likes of ‘Twilight’ than it may like to admit.

Adapted from the novel of the same title – by Italian author Agnes Moon – by Unifaun founder and head producer Adrian Buckle and directed by Stephen Oliver, The Acrobat (Blood Ties) does poke explicit fun at the sparkly-vampire franchise at a certain point in its script, but its appeals to the young adult crowd can’t be overlooked, no matter how much blood and sex one throws into the mix.

Currently being staged at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, the play’s cast is largely rounded off by international talent, with a small Maltese contingent of largely young actors very much proving their mettle in supporting roles. The Dickens-meets-Anne Rice story zooms in on the young thief Liam (Cody Hively), an orphaned thief in the employ of Curt (Mark Windsor, in one of his four roles) - a pederastic Fagin-like character who sports a MAGA hat and goes around in an unsightly pair of underwear, and whose latest assignment for Liam - or ‘acrobat’, as he’s known in the trade - is the theft of a precious dagger from a stately home.

But the job ends up being far more than what the righteously arrogant Liam had bargained for, as breaking into the dilapidated home of the aristocratic Vincent (Marco Michel) sets off a chain of events involving vampirism, sado-masochism… and ultimately, an unraveling of both of their inner demons.

On opening night on February 9, The Acrobat got off to something of a rocky start, with actors all-too-frequently fudging their lines and a creaky scene-to-scene tempo that undercut somewhat the suspenseful build-up that the narrative requires.

But there was still plenty to enjoy here, if only because it showcased a fresh side to the Unifaun repertoire - one that’s less burdened with jolting the audience out of true and that embraces the trappings of a popular genre for their own sake.

Though perhaps somewhat over-used by the end, the three overhanging monitors on stage - an otherwise impeccable set designed by Unifaun regular Romualdo Moretti - that blared out music videos by Depeche Mode certainly set an apposite New Romantic tone, not least when you’re reminded of just how heavily laced with BDSM the songs’ subtext can be. The look and feel of the piece was also complemented by Nicole Cuschieri’s costume design, which betrays an intimate understanding of the material and plays up its flamboyance for all it’s worth. One minor quibble on this front, however: though the play is clearly set in present day (characters speak in modern slang, sometimes over mobile phones) the ‘Occult Hunters’ who show up in the final act do so in full Victorian period costume - a misjudged, jarring move for a play that demands careful worldbuilding.

Moon’s story adds nothing new to the vampire romance canon, but the ‘will-they, won’t-they’ dynamic that’s established between Liam and Vincent plays out convincingly enough on stage, with both actors taking to their roles with relish. Cut from the same cloth that gave us the Vampire Lestat and his countless imitators, Vincent is arch, abusive and ultimately charming, revealing a vulnerability at his core that he allows ‘the acrobat’ to sneak into, with Hively thankfully dropping his perma-sneering streetwise brat schtick to soften into something a bit more complex towards the end.

The Acrobat continues its run at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta tonight and on February 22, 23 and 24. The play is partially funded by the MAF Project Fund, Arts Council Malta.