Shakespeare’s cool and all, but the cultural legacy of Bram Stoker is incalculable, especially for someone who’s really only known for one book. (He wrote others, but how many can you name?) Sure, he based the character on Count Dracula very loosely on a 15th century historical figure (although there’s some debate about how much he knew or cared about that and how much has been projected onto his work by enthusiastic scholars and fans), but what we think of when we think of Dracula is entirely Stoker’s invention. For that matter, our whole conception of vampires in general is inextricably tied up in Stoker’s imagination, though certainly it was influenced by folk tale and some earlier, lesser known vampire tales of the 1800s, like Carmilla and Varney the Vampire. It’s a safe bet that if Stoker had never written Dracula, the vampire craze in popular culture over the last century-plus would never have happened.
And if you haven’t read the original novel, man, you’re missing out. There’s something about the epistolary format, the way Stoker never lets you inside Dracula’s head but only offers glimpses of the vampire through terrified people who don’t understand what’s happening to them, that makes the suspense and horror build exquisitely.
So I was heartened to see that nobody plays Dracula in Dracula Inquest, the latest play inspired by Stoker’s classic. It’s also the 44th world premiere produced by Central Works, the Berkeley company that does nothing but new works created through its collaborative method—and the 30th by company codirector and resident playwright Gary Graves. Here too the vampire is seen entirely through others’ eyes and accounts of him, and these shadowy glimpses are far scarier than looking the monster full in the face.
No set is necessary in the gothic confines of the company’s usual home at the Berkeley City Club, just some tattered white curtains over the windows. The setting is a Victorian insane asylum, where a Scotland Yard inspector has come to interrogate the surviving protagonists of Stoker’s novel. Of course, the novel doesn’t exist in this reality, but a similar or possibly identical document does, patched together from letters, diary entries and other first-person accounts of the lives touched by the monster. The manuscript was, we’re told, transcribed and assembled by Mina Harker for purposes unknown.
Detective Sly is a cockney-accented Eastender seething with class resentment. He’s tasked with investigating the disappearance of a Transylvania nobleman, but all he can see is upper-class toffs up to no good.
Despite the fact that we’re given glimpses into Sly’s thought process through a few soliloquys that feel weirdly tacked-on and awkwardly incorporated into the play (with several paraphrased Shakespeare quotes thrown in for good measure), it’s often hard to understand his line of questioning. As played by John Flanagan, Sly maintains an invariable air of sarcastic incredulity. He doesn’t let up with his hostile mockery at all to encourage a witness who’s being cooperative, for example. At other times, he’s bizarrely patient, letting Jonathan Harker wax poetic with some long, atmospheric scene-setting about his first visit to Transylvania before getting to the part a cop might care about. And Sly lets fly with a near-constant barrage of scattershot accusations: You’re peddling drugs! You murdered your friends! You’re part of some kind of freaky sex cult! It’s not clear that these add up to any particular picture in his mind, and you can’t tell if he believes anything he’s saying or not.
It’s also very hard to figure out how much Sly is supposed to know. If he’s really read the same documents that Stoker presented in the novel, he’d have a pretty good sense of the evidence on the basis of which the people he’s interviewing claim that Dracula is a vampire. But from the way he reacts, you’d think this is a preposterous piece of new information that he’s being asked to swallow.
Not that the witnesses are particularly credible, lord knows. First up is a straightjacketed Doctor Seward, now an inmate in the very mental hospital that he founded. Kenny Toll’s compellingly jittery Seward is desperate to get out and insists he’s not insane, although he’s so agitated that he doesn’t make a terribly good case for himself.
As each new scene begins with a new witness, the previously interviewed characters linger, occasionally offering commentary. At first you may wonder whether or not they’re literally in the same room, but it eventually becomes obvious that they are, as little sense as that may make for an interrogation.
The others are far more self-possessed than Seward, and it’s not entirely clear whether they’re also inmates or just visiting. At first the only hint that they might also be institutionalized is that they’re all barefoot and wearing white robes in various states of decay. Tammy Berlin’s costumes for the other survivors are cleaner and more dignified, but also slightly tattered.
Most of the play is characters recounting the events of the novel, but in no particular order—that is, in an order dictated by who happens to be telling the story next, not by the actual order of events.
Joshua Schell is wild-eyed but soft-spoken as Jonathan Harker, eloquently recounting the events of his stint as houseguest to the vampire in great detail. Megan Trout’s pallid Mina is reserved, cold and collected, though she also has a knack for some eerily jerky movements when the story calls for them. Joe Estlack appears to be thoughtfully calm as Professor Van Helsing, but over time that shifts slightly to listless, perhaps haunted.
Company codirector Jan Zvaifler’s staging is effectively unnerving, with everyone not-so-gradually falling apart. There’s a lot of time when several people are hanging around in corners with not much to do, but at the same time it’s sort of interesting to see how they collapse when they’re not center stage.
Gregory Scharpen’s sound design creates a chilling atmosphere with echoing music, whispers, horses, screams, whistling winds and other spooky sounds well-matched to the story being told. The effect is similar to suspense, but largely without the aspect of wondering what’s going to happen next, because all the horrible stuff they’re talking about is in the past—or is it? What exactly are the stakes here?
Things get a little silly at the end, taking considerable liberties with the way vampirism works in Stoker’s novel and in the mythology based around it, and yet it’s played with such urgency and overall creepiness that it works on a visceral level even if the mind remains unconvinced.
Show #64 of 2014, attended July 20.