Arts & Events
At intermission, I spied this witty actress with whom I’ve worked, and asked her what she thought about the play. “Wonderfully cheesy!” she quipped. It was pithy and apropos.
I had hoped for scary and sexy. That’s what you go to see Dracula for, right? Except for a couple of fleeting moments, this one is neither.
This play bears bare bones resemblance to the 1927 Broadway hit by Balderston & Deane from which they made the 1931 Lugosi movie. It draws much more from modern movies like Coppola’s ‘92 film with Gary Oldman, and some from the ’79 movie with Frank Langella as the Byronesque Count. They all draw from Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel of 1897, written about the same time a little known Austrian physician was writing about sex and the unconscious. This production is set in Victorian England in an English drawing room and bed chamber overtop a madhouse—and if that’s not symbolic enough of the Ego/Id Freudian construct, what is?
The set and the opening moment promise terror that is never delivered. Kim Tolman’s Expressionist** set—with skewed perspective, walls akimbo and out of kilter— is painted a murky turquoise and offset with red barren trees. It’s enough to give us the willies in the pre-set. The play begins with a golden, scaly, masked creature resembling a reptile with a ruff climbing down the wall in a trick-of-the-eye defiance of gravity. And that’s pretty much it for scary.
Insofar as sexy, it’s implied rather than enacted. When the three vamps seduce Solicitor Jonathan Harker in the Count’s castle, it turns into a balletic modern dance without any juice. Pulling back on this moment missed a chance to deliver both scary and sexy, especially for the men, because the confusion caused by combining the fear of being bitten and eaten together with sex calls up that male trauma called “vagina dentata.” And the best plays—and scariest—are those that hit us below the conscious level. The Dracula play was the subject of much psychoanalytic literature after the Langella 70’s Broadway version with sets by Gothic cartoonist Edward Gorey.
We almost get some carnal thrills when Drac goes after a willing Lucy, but, alas, it’s covered over with a clumsy outpouring of red scarves to symbolize blood (so overdone that it reminded me of the classic clown gag of the never-ending scarf). Giving the devil his due, when Mina drinks blood from the bare-chest of our anti-hero, it’s hot, but the moment goes by prematurely. (By contrast, the same, near-fellatio scene with Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman in Coppola’s film plays it for all it’s worth.)
(Side note: I keep seeing sex scenes on the local stage that are glossed over—three times in my last three outings! Does anybody watch TV and recognize that Contemporary Cable has changed Community Standards?)
In the theatre, the phrase for reacting truthfully to the scripted events as you would in real life is termed “playing the given circumstances.” Watching the actors go through the pity and the terror of what life brings them supposedly pulls us into their emotional lives, and we vicariously enter their world and walk in their shoes. Regrettably, there is little truth in the acting here. When a young and vibrant loved one declines in a few short days then expires, one expects some wailing in grief even from the stiff-upper lip British.
While sitting beside her corpse when she unexpectedly recovers, one expects a shriek then an outpouring of joy. When confronted with unknown forces, one expects even strong men to be on the verge of nervous collapse. Under Michael Butler’s direction, nothing like this occurs. While the script calls for lots of expository yakking about the minutiae of the situation, strong and real emotional reactions are MIA.
The other problem is, ironically, the gorgeous set. Part of terror is having the other-worldly evil enter the mundane world. With the scenery being weird, I expected a style of acting that resembled the disturbed world, such as behavior out of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” This play is a drawing-room melodrama which does not jibe with the background. Going from terror to normal permits the tension to be sustained, but here everything is played out against this dread-inducing backdrop. It would have been a coup if the sets could have righted to normal perpendiculars when things were normal, then gone wonky when the terror struck—but that’s second-guessing the designer.
The old-time gas lighting of the time period made for warm yellow interiors. This lighting is muted without any coziness to change mood. The picture is enhanced when down-lighting occurs, but otherwise the actors seemed flattened. I couldn’t tell if more backlighting was needed—backlighting makes a figure more three-dimensional—or if the low level of the lights was at fault. There is also scary background music throughout which likewise has a sameness to it.
Eugene Brancoveanu plays Count Vlad Tepes, the Dracul. His powerful and mellifluous baritone serves the character and audience well. Old actors used to say the one thing an actor had to have was a grand voice to fill the house. With the possible exception of Lucy, played by Madeleine H. D. Brown, all other voices—and personas—are thin by comparison and don’t wrap around us like Brancoveanu’s. “Pro-JECT!” they lectured us in acting school. It was only later that we understood they were talking about more than volume and resonance of the voice: it was this almost magical ability to project one’s presence and emotions to the furthest reaches of the audience. Only Brancoveanu effectively reaches much past the apron of the stage.
Brancoveanu, an internationally recognized operatic baritone from Romania, has the agility and flexibility to approach the embodiment of an unworldly creature with his seductive, animalistic moves. He is at ease as a seducer—his bravura performance as Don Giovanni, the ultimate seducer, in Berkeley Opera’s recent production was the best opera acting I’ve ever seen. In the opera, big acting is the usual, and when in monster mode, Brancoveanu generally fills the bill. But he seems to be holding back in this straight play, and could go much larger with more effect. He is appropriately suave when in charming nobleman form with his expressive hands and gallant gestures, but without the charisma we see when he is transformed, which disappoints. He overcomes the foppish lacy sleeves with which the costumer has saddled him. His rounded features are boyish and pleasant, but when combined with his Kennedy-style haircut, it mutes the picture of sophistication. In Don G., he spiked his hair, which heightened the character. Maybe a little Bela Lugosi pomade slicking-back, as was the custom of that day, would help here. (Fun fact: two different Princes of Wallachia—200 years apart—were named Tepes (who was the historic Dracula)—and Brancoveanu!)
Oh, and the other scary moment: the finale. A little lighting trick and a whole lot of acting worked well to leave us with a mild fright. When we did it a million years ago in a little community theatre in Appalachia, the director was a magician, and Drac would really disappear in a welter of fog through a trap door. Worked great. We can see the tricks here, and that isn’t good. If you think the theatre can’t be scary, the next time you go to London, go see “Woman in Black”—just make sure you visit the loo before the curtain.
The audience laughed at what seemed inappropriate moments. Perhaps everybody knows the story too well—even before Count Chocula, the theme was lending itself to “camp.” Renfield, played by Michael Barrett Austin, is used as a jack-in-the-box comic relief foil instead of the tortured soul who sometimes brings a laugh to break the tension—which is sort of a metaphor for this production.
I went hoping for more, although some of the opening night audience rose to applaud. My non-theatre-going newbie companions had fun, but both said they might have felt differently if they’d had to pay the $95 for two.
([** “Expressionism: A movement in the arts during the early part of the 20th century that emphasized subjective expression of the artist's inner experiences; its typical trait is to present the world under an utterly subjective perspective, violently distorting it to obtain an emotional effect and vividly transmit personal moods and ideas.” Thank you Wikipedia.org (don’t knock it), and TheFreeDictionary.com.)
DRACULA plays October 22 - November 20, 2010
At Lesher Center for the Arts, Margaret Lesher Theatre, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek CA
Tickets: (925) 943-7469 or www.centerrep.org
Written by Hamilton Dean and John Balderston with additions from the novel by Bram Stoker. Direction by Michael Butler, scenic design by Kim A. Tolman, lighting design by Kurt Landisman, properties made by Seren Helday, choreography by Kate Jopson, costume design by Victoria Livingston-Hall, sound design by Cliff Caruthers, wigs by Judy Disbrow, casting by Jennifer Perry, makeup design by Erik Batz, with stage management by Gregg Rehrig*
WITH: Michael Barrett Austin*, Eugene Brancoveanu, Madeline H.D. Brown, Lauren Doucette, Emma Goldin, Thomas Gorrebeeck, Taylor Jones, Kate Jopson, Sam Leichter, Kendra Lee Oberhauser, Robert Sicular*, Michael Wiles* (*-member of Actors Equity Association)
John A. McMullen II wrote his MFA thesis on “A Freudian Approach to the Vampire Play,” and knows more than is healthy about the subject. Contact EyefromtheAisle@gmail.com Thanks to EJ Dunne for editing.