Vamping the Vampire

27. October, 2010 Theater No comments

He may be long in the tooth, but he never gets old. The big daddy of all vampires, Count Dracula is one of those characters that everyone knows, and his story has been told time and time again, never quite in the same way. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula has been adapted hundreds of times for every imaginable medium. According to the program, Center REPertory Company’s production at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts uses the earliest stage version by John Balderston and Hamilton Deane, but this is balderdash. Some scenes remain from the 1927 play that starred Bela Lugosi on Broadway in the 1920s and Frank Langella in the 1970s, leading to their respective Dracula movies*, but the bulk of it has been so radically rewritten for this production that it’s bizarre to see no adaptor credited.

Kendra Lee Oberhauser and Eugene Brancoveanu in Dracula. Photo by Kevin Berne

Deane’s play, rewritten by Balderston for its American debut after its London premiere, takes considerable liberties with Stoker’s story. The two main women characters are reversed, so that the novel’s heroine Mina is dead when the play begins, and her friend Lucy is engaged to hero Jonathan Harker instead of Mina. Jonathan never goes to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, and Lucy for some reason is the daughter of Dr. Seward, who was one of her suitors in the original story.

The Center REP production is even less faithful to the Deane/Balderston version than their play was to Stoker. At first it seems like director Michael Butler, the company’s artistic director, has nudged the story considerably closer to the novel. Not only does it start with Jonathan in Transylvania, but he tells his story in letters to Mina. Stoker’s novel is entirely written in letters, diary entries, ship’s logs and other such documents, which makes the story considerably scarier because it’s told entirely by people who don’t understand what’s happening to them, and we rarely get a clear glimpse of Dracula himself. There’s Mina in her rightful place as Jonathan’s fiancée, quite alive and having dishy conversations with Lucy that of course appear nowhere in the original play’s text. Seward is in love with Lucy and isn’t her father anymore. It’s not clear where all this dialogue came from, but at first it seems like a promising change.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Butler is influenced less by the novel than by Francis Ford Coppola’s decadent 1992 flick Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like the Coppola movie, it’s based around a romance that appears nowhere in the book nor the earlier play, with Dracula believing Mina to be his beloved wife Elisabeta reincarnated. (A resemblance between the two women is mentioned in Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest” but nowhere in the novel, where his intentions are never suggested to be anything but predatory.) Victoria Livingston-Hall’s over-the-top costumes and Erik Batz’s makeup for Dracula and his three vixens are also heavily influenced by that movie’s design, especially in the Transylvanian scenes.

There are other alterations in this staging that Stoker, Deane or Coppola never considered, including a twist ending that doesn’t really make sense. One of the minor ones is that Butler has Dracula calling himself Vlad Tepes in Transylvania. Translating as “Vlad the Impaler” in Romanian, that’s one name given to the 15th-century Wallachian ruler whose surname Dracula (“son of the dragon”) Stoker is generally believed to have borrowed for his fictional vampire. The name’s inclusion here is a nice little nod to Dracula nerds everywhere, but the vampire doesn’t use it as a modern-day alias in other versions.

Kim A. Tolman’s set is a knockout, a shadowy Expressionistic jumble of tall gray buildings jutting diagonally like tombs strewn willy-nilly by an earthquake. Red twiggy trees rise on the sidelines, their bare branches looking like arteries. Right at the beginning a white-faced figure crawls down one of these walls in a reptilian harlequin getup with a huge collar like a frill-necked lizard.

In just a few short scenes, Madeline H.D. Brown draws a complete portrait of Lucy as a confident, playful beauty who seems very used to men falling in love with her, a tribute that doesn’t seem to faze her but that she regards sympathetically, if noncommittally. Kendra Lee Oberhauser’s Mina is oddly shrewish in the first act, always taking a chiding tone in her agitation, but she becomes radiant and seductive while under Dracula’s spell, enough so that it seems a shame to snap her out of it.

Thomas Gorrebeeck is a suitably strapping, if severely traumatized, heroic type as Jonathan Harker, and Robert Sicular makes a kindly but businesslike vampire-hunting Dutch scientist as Professor Van Helsing. With a wire cage over his head, Michael Barrett Austin is compelling and often very funny as the madman Renfield, Dracula’s insect-eating thrall, although for some reason the opening-night audience laughed even when he was being dramatic.

Michael Wiles is a mild-mannered Dr. Seward, the asylum keeper, with some kind of magnifying attachment sticking out from his eyeglasses no matter where he is. Lauren Doucette and Sam Leichter mostly stick to the background as a cockney housemaid and Seward’s assistant Butterworth, enough so that when they have a scene of their own you wonder at first what it has to do with the story. Taylor Jones, Kate Jopson and Emma Goldin do a burlesque dance for Jonathan to Middle Eastern-influenced music as a trio of vampire vixens playing with their food.

Romanian-born Eugene Brancoveneu, a 2003 Tony winner for La Boheme, has some urbane charm as Dracula but always skirts the edge of camp. Equipped with an echo mike more often than not, he looks like a chalk-white, wild-maned cross between a Klingon and a kabuki actor in the Transylvania scenes, and his suave formal wear in London adds a long lacy cape and foppish frilly sleeves to his tailed tuxedo. He doesn’t actually exclaim “bluh!” but he pops out of trap doors a lot, baring his fangs and hissing with stage smoke spewing all around him.

Butler’s sumptuous production is long on production values, razzle-dazzle, and short sharp shocks, but it’s perplexingly uneven in tone. It starts off creepy and gets campier as it goes along, but not in such a way that it seems like it’s necessarily intended to be a parody of itself. It just turns out that way. But silly or no, it’s a wild ride that affords all the pleasures of a late-night horror flick, which makes it a welcome addition to the roster of oddball Dracula adaptations. There have been many of those and will be many more—Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater will unveil a new one just next week—but somehow there’s always room under Dracula’s cape for more.

Through November 20
Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Dr.
Walnut Creek, CA

Show #113 of 2010, attended October 26.

*The classic Bela Lugosi Dracula film plays Friday, October 29 at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre along with newsreel, cartoon, raffle and the mighty Wurlitzer, all for five bucks.

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