DRACULA

Adapted by Joe Hanrahan from Bram Stoker's novel (Midnight Productions)

Every person I know who runs a vintage-goods store reports the largest sales boost comes not at Christmas but in October. Costumes are big business, especially vampiric and witchy duds like capes and peaked hats. But the money's much bigger than that. Sometime in our lifetimes, October became an orange-and-black juggernaut: "Shocktober." Elvira plugs everything from Halloween beer to flashlight batteries. And under-rented parts of shopping malls become "haunted houses," which saturate teen-demographic radio and roadside billboards. (Seriously, folks, if you've really got the spirit, go to the animal shelter and adopt a black cat -- they're always in oversupply.)

Yet such commercialization has always been wedded to Gothic themes. Jane Austen had characters reading what we'd call "bodice-rippers" and even tried her hand at one with Northanger Abbey. The brilliant Brontë sisters had inspiration aplenty with the forsaken moors and gray skies of Haworth, not to mention alcoholic and intermittently mad brother Branwell, who inspired brooding Heathcliff and probably Mr. Rochester's mad wife. Later in the century, Bram Stoker dashed off Dracula and was as surprised as anyone when his count captured the Victorian imagination. Dracula, despite the fangs, was just a new take on the dark stranger. He even had the ancestral pedigree required of all Gothic seducers. (The women in these works, meanwhile, often spring from common soil, as chastity rather than history is crucial.)

As the personal secretary, business advisor and later biographer of actor Henry Irving, Stoker was no stranger to charisma, and he gave his character plenty. Undoubtedly, the old tragedian's theatricality informed the character of the count, a man of another time. But our time as well -- consider the films, TV series, fashions and even breakfast cereal directly inspired by this archetypal vampire, who can be portrayed as ghastly or glamorous or, in the case of Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, both.

David Wassilak as Dracula: His Dracula is ultimately no more menacing than a leafless tree under a full moon, and possibly more wooden.
Jacquin Studios
David Wassilak as Dracula: His Dracula is ultimately no more menacing than a leafless tree under a full moon, and possibly more wooden.

So the prospect of "a new, contemporary version of Dracula" (mounted by local outfit Midnight Productions at the neo-Gothic Lemp Brewery) was intriguing. Why not have some innovation, when we already know the story so well? Jonathan Harker is sent on an errand to the Carpathian Mountains, where his host, Count Dracula, is never available before sunset. Harker falls under the count's spell but somehow makes it back to civilization, where he is preceded by his undead host, whose box of earth is packed on a ship that sails pilotless into harbor. Maidens are emptied faster than a kegger at a frat party before someone figures out that a cricket wicket through the fiend's solar plexus will fix the problem. Finis.

At the Lemp Brewery, you get your tickets in an eerie enclosed delivery area and then enter a cavernous chamber lined in brick. Great atmosphere, albeit no scenery save mullioned windows set high in a wall and a raised platform running the length of the room. At the outset, this spareness is promising. Groups of tall, white pillar candles provide flickering illumination. But the folding chairs are set up row-by-row, auditorium-style. "Dracula will take place in an unique two level setting, with the audience following Dracula from his castle to his new home, and then back for the exciting conclusion," reads the press release. Alas, the unique two-level setting is completely underutilized, and the conclusion is hardly -- well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Actor David Wassilak, one of the founders of Midnight Productions, is a tall, thin bloke with a hawkish profile and a sepulchral manner of speaking. But his Dracula is ultimately no more menacing than a leafless tree under a full moon, and possibly more wooden. Of course, it doesn't help that the script, penned by director Joe Hanrahan (he doesn't claim to have written it, merely "adapted"), is utterly dreary and a sad filching of Stoker's elegant if overblown novel. As the show begins, Jonathan Harker (Drew Bell), a wide-eyed Realtor, has ended up in Romania to arrange a move for Count Dracula, who's tired of the old sod as the Balkan war has brought unwelcome attention to his "private part of the world." What a fabulous point -- can't you just imagine some crazy castle in outer Bosnia-Herzegovina-Croatia housing a disgruntled and sleep-disturbed ghoul?

Alas, Midnight Productions does nothing with this gambit. The scenes with Harker and Dracula are excruciatingly tedious and not a bit scary. Bell tends to rush his lines without inflecting them, and Wassilak as the count tends to spe-e-eak in very lo-o-ong bursts that MAY... put ... stra-a-ange emphasis on certain words for no damn good reason save that the audience is evidently supposed to conclude that Drac is one weird cat. Duh. Several scenes are played in the dimly lit area to the right of the seats, which means anyone not sitting stage left has to crane their necks. No one takes into account the echoing acoustical properties of the hall, so some actors garble their words and others just sound muffled.

The few "new, contemporary" aspects of this production come in the second act (also overlong and devoid of drama), in which Dracula and his "vampire brides" turn up in an unnamed American city where they pursue Lucy, the best friend of Jonathan's fiancee, Mina, in a disco. For this, the audience has to schlepp up a flight of stairs in another part of the building, again inadequately lighted. (And where are the "Exit" signs, guys? That's not up to code.) Again, the seats are set row-by-row, and really corny faux-Kraftwerk electronica plays. Here, Wassilak has painted the gray out of his hair and switched from a black graduation gown to a retro-style leisure suit complete with sunglasses. The Vampire Brides (Elena Sloop, Lyndsay Somers and Jessica Johns) are cute in their frocks, but they sashay like members of the Junior Council sloshed on wine coolers. Heather Ann Klinke as Mina seems to have some voice training, but the lack of direction finds all the actors in the ensemble scenes lined up like pickets in a fence. Again, use the space, guys.

Frankly, this production is completely irredeemable, but if changes are to be made, consider the following: Think theater-in-the-round when you set up those chairs, and have the actors actually move in the entire space and play nearer to the spectators instead of pretending they're in a conventional theater. Rent better lights and enlist company members to train movable follow-spots on actors' faces. A number of "crucial" scenes were played in complete darkness. Dress the space -- a few cobwebs and more candles might do wonders -- and have your tech staff get into the spirit, as well as your ushers. Rethink the makeup and costumes for consistency and lose "the heroic group" who pursue the vampire, especially the cowboy, although actor Larry Dell enunciated clearly enough. As for the script -- well, how much are the royalties to Samuel French? It's a pity this show will get an audience from sheer goodwill overflow (Haunted Caverns and Dr. Zurheide's Asylum also play the Lemp Brewery). Finally, stage blood is easily created with Karo syrup and food coloring. Use some. Dracula is not supposed to be anemic.

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