You might not know it from the advertising art, but this stage production of DRACULA at the NoHo Arts Center is a revamped version of the old play by Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston – the one that became a hit on Broadway and was adapted into the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi. Consequently, the play was a huge influence on cinematic portrayals of vampires. Now the NoHo Arts Center turns the tables, presenting a modernized version heavily influenced by subsequent movies, most notably the 1979 version starring Frank Langella and the overwrought BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA from 1992, with at least one incongruous addition from DARK SHADOWS. The result is a bit of a jumbled mess: entertaining in parts, imaginative in its staging, but ultimately unsuccessful in its attempt to reintepret the familiar story.
Typically, the NoHo Arts Center makes excellent use of their limited space, presenting a production that seems elaborate enough to fill a venue two or three times as large. The high ceiling allows for atmospheric backdrops; different areas of the stage are used to suggest different locations, allowing for an almost cinematically-paced change of scenes; and occasionally the action escapes from the stage proper as characters walk up and down the stairs between the rows of seats. The staging is enhanced by some wonderfully spooky sound design that adds an extra layer to the proceedings.
What, then, is wrong? First off, some liberties have been taken with the text in an effort to transform Dracula into a sympathetic character who falls in love with his victim; it’s the kind of interpretation that requires a whole new play, not a touch-up on an existing work that was heading in an entirely different direction.
This results in a confused play, neither fish nor fowl. Instead of enriching the story with ambiguity, the conflict is now muddled, less involving. We watch not because we care whether the heroes can rescue the damsel from her distress, but to see what twists and turns the production will add, while we hope in vain that it will add up to something worthwhile.
In an effort to provide another female role, Dr. Seward has been changed to a woman – a rather unlikely move (I doubt there were many women running asylums at the time, even though the period of the play is the early 20th century, decades after the setting of Stoker’s novel). The actress in the role, with her flapper-era wig, comes across like something out of a West Hollywood drag queen show (this is less a comment on the acting abilities than the appearance).
In what is the make-or-break role, Robert Arbogast initially comes across well as the Count, but as the play proceeds his Euro-accent wavers, and he seems to be concentrating on it so hard that the performance suffers; he is ultimately reduced to posing like a male model, doing that slow-burn thing that is supposed to be sexy.
On the most basic level, this DRACULA falls short, seldom sending a child through your blood. But if you stick with it, there are some great moments. The use of a music box to suggest a connection between Dracula and his reincarnated love is out of place (it’s really Barnabas Collins’ shtick), but it is fun to see the opening and closing of the Langella film recreated live on stage. And there is a wonderfully thrilling moment when the lunatic Renfield scales the back wall of the theatre, disappearing from view among the rafters.
In short, if you have never experienced the venerable Deane-Balderston play, you might as well take this opportunity to see it performed; the original is a historically important piece that should be of interest to all fans of the immortal Count Dracula in all his guises, whether in literature or on stage or in the movies. The play transformed the Count from an animalistic predator of the novel into the Continental smoothie, seductive and hypnotic, who defined cinematic vampires forever since. The new NoHo Arts production attempts a similar transformation, but instead of taking the lead, it simply rehashes what movies have been doing for the last few decades. If that’s what it takes to justify dusting off an old museum piece for one more go, so be it, but this piece of revisionism falls short of what a simple, faithful presentation might have achieved.
NOTE: Originally scheduled to end its run at NoHo Arts Center on March 22, Dracula has been extended to April 26.