Chicago Theatre Review
Dracula – Hypocrites
Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel loosely strung together a few historical facts and a smattering of Eastern European folklore with a generous amount of wild imagination. The result was a novel about a bloodsucking fiend of noble lineage from Transylvania. Count Dracula has found his supply of sanguine nutrient in his Carpathian homeland to be weak. So, in order to survive, he relocates to England for fresh blood and to spread his undead curse with new conquests. The novel was popular as an adventure story at the turn of the century, but it wasn’t until 1931 when the story was adapted for the stage, and later for film, that Dracula became an iconic character.
Since that time, with Bela Lugosi rising to fame as the aristocratic vampire king, both on stage and in film, the book has never been out of print. The popularity of Dracula and vampires in general is going strong even to this day. There are, to date, well over 200 films that feature the Transylvanian Count, as well as many operas, musicals and plays. This new adaptation of the novel by Artistic Director Sean Graney, is having its world premiere, just in time for Halloween. It’s a mixed blood bag.
The playwright has followed the basic premise of Stoker’s original plot. Like his story, the play begins in Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, with Jonathan Harker arriving to meet the Count and complete his real estate transaction for acquiring a new estate near London. Unlike the original, Harker first encounters Renfield, who, in the novel, is an inmate in Dr. Seward’s hospital for the mentally ill. Not only does Jonathan meet Renfield at Castle Dracula, Renfield is now a woman named Alice. After warning Harker that he would be wise to leave immediately, she flees Transylvania in his carriage. Suddenly Harker meets the Count, as well as a bevy of strange creatures clad from head to toe in black robes, who set upon him as a late night snack.
In the next scene we’re introduced to more of Stoker’s characters. We meet a very modern, liberated Lucy Westenra, who, in this version is a love interest for both Dr. Arthur Seward and Professor Van Helsing. Her best friend Mina is also a strong feminist who, like Lucy, doesn’t see marriage in her immediate future. Both ladies want to explore their own identities and life’s possibilities, rather than being tied down to a husband, home and family…at least for now. Alice Renfield shows up, as does Dracula and his minions, and the stage becomes strewn with bodies and blood. It all becomes very messy and somewhat confusing, departing from the original story.
The big problem is the script. Graney has tried to cover too many themes and plot lines and he can’t decide where the focus should be. Is this a play about girl power and feminism? Is it a horror story meant to scare audiences out if their wits? Is it a parody or a comedy? To be honest, it’s all of these things but it’s not clear where our allegiances need to be directed.
The other problem is a common one. It’s often difficult to see the forest for the trees. Playwrights are seldom successful when directing their own plays, particularly if the script is new and unproven. This seems to be the case here. The play could use some rewrites and much better focus; but it would profit by having someone else guiding this production who’s more objective and hasn’t been involved in the play’s creation. A playwright is simply too close to his material to recognize any problems when bringing his work to life.
That said, this production has some fine things going for it that make it worthwhile. Much of the technical support is excellent. John Musial’s scenic design is almost genius, with it’s adaptability and its sharp look of forced perspective. He’s devised a sparsely embellished scenic design that effortlessly shifts from locale to locale. Dracula’s castle is dominated by a large sarcophagus on an elevated platform and a gigantic, green door. Lucy’s room features the most massive Victorian settee imaginable. Each scene has a series of secret, hidden passageways allowing for a host of startling, unexpected entrances and departures. Bathed in some truly frightening and fanciful lighting effects by Mike Durst and shrouded in a soundtrack of eerie music and startling sound effects created by Joe Griffin this show is technically terrific.
Several of the performances are also quite good, beginning with a powerful portrayal of Count Dracula by Beon Arzell. Casting this talented young man was a true stroke of genius. Here’s an actor whose sheer strength and magnetic charisma never falters. Enhanced by his choreographic skill, Mr. Arzell creates a lithe, catlike antihero who’s capable of eliciting goosebumps with every line, while silently stalking the stage like a bloodthirsty dancer.
The other exciting performance among this seven-member cast comes from Aurora Real De Asua, as Mina. Having appeared in the Hypocrites production of “You on the Moors,” this gifted actress is vibrant and commanding. She’s so strong in this role that audiences may leave the production with the impression that Mina’s the central character; and, in fact, this is one of this play’s problems. It’s not clear whose story we’re watching. There’s enough evidence to argue that the play is about the three women, particularly Mina. But then it also seems to be simply a modern-day version of the age-old battle between good and evil. The male characters, with the exception of Dracula, are pretty ineffectual pawns in this version. The slapstick triumvirate of Professor Van Helsing, Dr. Seward and Jonathan Harker seem to be a variation of The Three Stooges. Ms. De Asua’s Mina, with the able assistance of Erin Barlow’s crazy Alice Renfield, do all the heavy lifting in conquering the bloodsucking fiend who’s invading England.
While this play begins with style and strength, Sean Graney’s direction of his original version of the vampire myth soon becomes unfocused and messy. There’s far too much slapstick, blood and violence for a well-crafted horror story. True dramatic terror comes in slowly building suspense and then suddenly shocking the audience with surprise. This production begins in this way and then goes awry, continually aiming for the jugular. Gore is flung everywhere amid a frenzy of combat. The result is confusing. It doesn’t help that the production can’t decide if it’s a parody, a slasher story, a feminist statement or simply a modern-day retelling of one of the most popular horror novels of all time.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 7-November 5 by The Hypocrites at Mercury Theater 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by 773-325-1700 or by going to www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.