Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2009
I don’t need to tell you that vampires are all the rage – again – if they ever went out of style in the first place. I confess I don’t understand the fascination and even seeing my beloved Raul Julia in the title role in the 1977 Broadway revival of the stage version of Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston did nothing to sell me on the concept of blood-sucking un-dead guy as matinee idol.
The Dracula currently on stage at the Cohoes Music Hall is not the Deane and Balderston version, which first played Broadway in 1927 with Bela Lugosi in the title role, nor is it the musical version by Frank Wildhorn that had a brief New York run in 2004. This is a non-musical 1995 adaptation by Steven Dietz that conforms very closely to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Although it is popular in regional, community and educational theatres (I reviewed a production at the Ghent Playhouse in 2003), Dietz’ Dracula has never had a New York production.
If you are going to use a novelist’s title and characters, I feel it is only right to hew fairly closely to the plot of the original, so I applaud Dietz’s devotion to Stoker’s original. The problem is that the novel is written in epistolary form (it’s comprised of fictional letters, diary entries, news clippings and the like) which doesn’t translate well to the stage because there is a big difference between written and spoken language. There is an even bigger difference between how people in the late 19th century wrote and how we speak today. Dietz has incorporated actual passages from Stoker, and they sound old and musty.
The good news is that for most of the play Dietz moves the action along quickly, in short scenes that shift the action rapidly among locations and characters, giving some idea of the prismatic view of events that Stoker created in allowing many characters to speak instead of relying on a single narrative voice.
This quick choppy action however, creates a new problem in terms of staging – if you need to be in Lucy Westenra’s London bedroom one minute, Renfield’s cell the next, and on board a ship bound for Transylvania immediately after you either need an ENORMOUS theatre or a very clever set designer. Luckily scenic and lighting designer Matt Fick has done very well by the Cohoes production with a dank and massive rock wall providing the backdrop behind multiple levels of playing space ranging from underneath the stage (guess what lurks down there?!) to a perilously high balcony dwelling for poor Renfield.
But by the middle of Act II the script begins to bog down. Dietz has retained more of Stoker’s characters, which means there are more stories to conclude, and a modern audience is so familiar with the overall plot that Professor Abraham Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker and Dr. John Seward – the so-called Crew of Light – begin to look like very dim bulbs indeed as they constantly fail to find and kill the Count.
Dietz has not written a campy Dracula and director Jerry Christakos doesn’t have his actors play it that way. In fact this is a dark and spooky production where the sense of impending evil and doom build nicely.
Not only is this Dracula dark and spooky, it is very sexual too. This play is all about blood (there is plenty of the stage variety on hand!) and it is the blood rushing around to the appropriate organs that creates and enables sexual arousal. From the very start Dietz and Christakos present Lucy and Mina as full-blooded young heterosexual women who are very aware of their own desires and those of the men who court them.
Far more aware than the gentlemen seem to be. Dracula makes mention of England being an excellent choice because of the comfortable complacency of its residents. Adam Couperthwaite as Harker and Philip Guerette as Dr. Seward see complacent to the point of catatonia, with even the eventual attacks on their beloved leaving them unmoved. Gordon Gray as Van Helsing works up a bit more of a sweat as the Count’s monstrous plot unfolds, but the overall impression for much of the latter half of Act II, as The Crew of Light puts the pieces together, is that they are quite passive when activity, or at least emotion, is clearly called for.
The interesting characters here are Renfield, Mina, Lucy, and the Count, in that order. Renfield is the money role here, and Bix Bettwy practically chews the scenery (well, he certainly gnaws on the props) in his full-blooded portrayal. Laura Valpey as Lucy is the perfect Victorian victim, clad all in virginal white with cascading golden hair and a plethora of suitors. Abigail Taylor makes Mina a serious, sensible little creature, obviously smarter and stronger than flighty Lucy.
Nemiroff’s Dracula is a cold-blooded, nasty man. His attempt at a Romanian accent in the flashback scene Transylvania with Harker is unfortunate, and he utterly fails to convey the Count’s age and weakness at that point, despite wearing an amazing waist-length wig of silver hair. But when Dracula turns up in England as a handsome and virile young man with no trace of the “I vant to suck your blud” accent left, Nemiroff fares much better. But while there is much that is sensual in his portrayal – his second scene with Mina is positively orgiastic – the actor presents us with a man far more fearful and powerful than alluring.
Michelle D. Sagnakos has done a nice job with the costumes. No, Nemiroff never appears in white tie, but he does sport an amazingly tall Victorian hat in his initial appearance. Properties designer Robyn James must have bought up all the stage blood available in upstate New York. Evocative music underscores the entire performance, but it is apparently prerecorded, not performed live as the music is for Cohoes’ musical theatre offerings.
Not being a vampire aficionado, I don’t know how modern vampire lore such as Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, which are currently all the adolescent rage, compare to Dietz’ take on Stoker, but Stoker wasn’t the first writer of popular vampire fiction. No matter how many stakes we drive through its heart, we seem unable to kill the vampire legend.
The C-R Productions presentation of Dracula runs from April 3-19 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street, Cohoes, NY. Performances are scheduled for Thursday-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs two hours and three-quarters with one intermission and is WAY too scary for children under ten – don’t even think about bringing them unless you are ready to nurse them through several sleepless and nightmare-ridden nights. Tickets range from $23 to $32. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009