Through November 17, 2019
It’s not often that a published play by a playwright, done in dozens of productions around the country, is rewritten by the same playwright for a major theater. But Steven Dietz did that rewrite for this new production of Dracula, now performing at ACT Theatre.
To a large extent, the new version seems to re-center the character of Mina as the hero of the play, the one who ultimately vanquishes Dracula, despite all the misery he visits on her person. For those who know the characters in the book, there is no Van Helsing in this stage version. Much of Van Helsing’s dialogue is now delivered by Mina, herself.
So, Khanh Doan, as Mina, must carry the play through force of personality, which she excels in throughout. She is strong, compassionate, determined, “pure,” thoughtful, well-reasoned (in a complicated play of faith versus science), and sexy.
The first version is said to follow the Bram Stoker novel closely, though apparently the time-sequences are a bit changed. Also, the earlier version uses Renfield as a kind of narrator. Renfield (Basil Harris) is much reduced in significance in this version. He is still an inhabitant of Dr. Seward’s (Avery Clark) insane asylum, but figures mostly to be under Dracula’s (Brandon O’Neill) thrall when Dracula needs “permission” to enter and coerces Renfield to utter the required permission.
The basics of the story are all there. Jonathan Harker (Arjun Pande) writes letters to his love Mina about going to Transylvania and meeting the Count, and Mina and her best friend Lucy (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) talk about Mina’s love of Harker and what it feels like. Then Harker suddenly goes missing and when found, he relates that Dracula has decided to come to London. All is in dread of his arrival when Lucy is found dead.
Of course, Lucy is not dead, she’s UNdead, and must be killed properly so her “soul will not wander the world forever” and they must all quest to find Dracula, spoil his multiple caskets so he can’t inhabit them, and then kill him to stop his evil.
This production has multiple additions to the script that even the new adaptation leaves open for creative execution. Director John Langs has included a torment of tiny devils (or maybe a venue of vixens) in blood red, hooded capes to dance around the stage in doing Dracula’s bidding, and included both original music by Robertson Witmer (who also provides sound design), and improvised-on-the-spot cello-playing and singing by the divine Rachel Beaver.
With an assist in various scenes from adept Lindsay W. Evans as maid/vixen/attendant, the cast gives it their all. It’s a quickly moving 90 minutes, but even so, there are moments that feel slow. The musical assist is crucial to the success of the evening, and helps both cover the scene changes while also providing creepy underscoring during emotional moments.
The spare set by Matthew Smucker looks like a cement rectangular affair that eventually seems more and more like walls full of coffins. Lighting by Andrew D. Smith is crucial to add almost a scene-like element to each scene change. Smucker and costumer Deborah Trout came up with a way of portraying the “old” Dracula that became a puppet head manipulated by several cast members that is magical and creepy to experience.
So, many elements are inventive (including the last “wall effect” I won’t spell out) and add much to the atmosphere. Yet, somehow, it still feels very “Catholic” and a bit too stereotypical. The overmiked spooky, reverberating Dracula voice never gives Dracula any “real” ground to connect with. The dialogue that heavily argues about faith versus science, yet doesn’t quite elucidate either side of the equation, didn’t move me at all.
There are definitely moments of levity and it may well check a lot more excitement boxes for others than for me. So, for an October-appropriate theme, and great special effects and an all-in cast, you should give it a go.