Arts & Events

Theater Review: Inferno Theatre's Original 'Dracula' at Historic South Berkeley Community Church

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday December 05, 2012 - 03:52:00 PM

"Children of the Night! What music they make!"

Count Dracula has exulted in those words to his querulous guest Jonathan Harker, upon hearing wolves howl near daybreak, whether in Bram Stoker's original novel or Bela Lugosi's performances as The Count on Broadway and in Tod Browning's movie ... but no version of 'Dracula' I know of has such a musical undertow as Inferno Theatre's original take on the story, now playing at the historic Arts & Crafts-designed South Berkeley Community Church.

Original, yet truer to Stoker's text than other versions, and livelier. And the music comes in as mad waltzes and a kind of ensemble merriment, high spirits verging on hysteria, that makes its best moments theatrical in a way that festivals, rituals, moments in crowded cities and out under the sky in the country, among locals, prove to be very immediate--and high--theater. 

"A play represents pure existing, while a novel is a past reported in a present, what one mind, claiming to be omniscient, asserts to have existed,' said playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, a Berkeley high grad, some of whose short plays are onstage at the Aurora. That puts the finger on what Inferno's accomplished--adapting a novel like 'Dracula'--which Bram Stoker, a man of the theater himself, who tried spreading out the narrative through various characters' voices--to the stage, and bringing out the mise en scene, having the ensemble express themselves polyphonically, through individual voices and movement, but arranged, choreographed together, in a hotel or its ballroom, on a train or a ship, pitching through the waves with vocal expressions and gestures ... 

It's the most ambitious production yet by Inferno, who've brought some international taste and excellence to local stages, especially at the Berkeley City Club, with their founder (and 'Dracula's' adaptor and director) Giulio Perrone's plays 'Galileo''s Daughters' and 'The Iliad,' the past few years. From Harker's appearance in Transylvania--delirious scenes of locals celebrating, spying, warning him, then conveying him by coach to Dracula's chateau in the wild--to the final journey to pound in the stake, the ensemble swirls in polyphonic color around its central figure, a remarkable female--or androgynous--Dracula, enacted brilliantly and with glee by Valentina Emeri, an original member of Inferno. 

The others are truly an ensemble, sometimes resembling leaves on the wind, like Kokoschka's canvas 'the Tempest,' magnetized to or repelled by Dracula and each other. AeJay Mitchell and Ilya Parizhsky turn out to be good "movers," in this opus of movement theater. Shena van Sponsen as the bedeviled and devilish Lucy proves herself in the clutch--of Dracula. That's just to name three of this cast who stand out ... 

Simone Bloch, another Inferno original, plays Seward, the asylum director, with fortitude, but has relatively little in movement to do for that character from such a fine movement performer, one who can be both flamboyant and subtle. Renfield, her charge, played by Christina Shonkwiler, is the most Grand Guignol of ghouls, cackling and exclaiming over verminous "presents," while contorting her frame into Gothic poses. With Emeri, they form a troika of women taking over traditionally male roles with elan. Julia Ellis plays a poised Mina, Paul Davis a driven Van Helsing ... 

An accordion sounds, or a saxophone, conjuring up a lonely visitation or a wild group dance ... and the dancers prey, in the friendliest fashion, on whomever they can get their hands on ... Hypnosis, somnambulism, the logic of dreams--all shared onstage, seeping over into the audience, as Dracula utters his welcome from Stoker's text, echoed in Perrone's design, Norman Kern's music, Michael Palumbo's lighting, the voices and movements of the performers--the audience's response: "Welcome to my house. the night air is chill. Enter of your own will. Come freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring." 

Inferno Theatre's 'Dracula'--Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays at 8, Fridays at 9, till December 16 at South Berkeley Community Church, 1802 Fairview at Ellis, two blocks west of Adeline, near Ashby BART. $12-$25 sliding scale. Reservations: 788-6415 or email