A new take on the old vampire casts the Count as the next step in evolution, sitting atop the food chain and preying on human victims with the indifference of a lion hunting antelope.
Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is an enthralling horror story marred by simplistic characters and an overdose of quaint Victorian sensibility; it's also of a rather unwieldy length, which makes cutting it down to size for stage or screen somewhat problematic. Despite the difficulties, the text is a rich source for adaptations, with vampirism serving as a metaphor open to multiple interpretations. Dracula: Blood Before Dawn, wrapping up its run at the Loft Ensemble Theatre in Sherman Oaks this weekend, showcases the pleasures and pitfalls of wrestling with Stoker's infamous Count - fortunately, more of the former than the later.
Following in the path of the hoary stage version by Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston, Dracula: Blood Before Dawn restricts the action to Britain, omitting the Transylvania episodes, and casting Dracula (who prefers not to be called "Count") as a socially adept foreigner who easily mingles among his new English neighbors. This Dracula, however, is conversant in the science of the times. Apparently picking up on scientific references in the book, playwright Raymond Donahey (who also directed) introduces a twist on an evolutionary theme underlying the original story: whereas Stoker's Dracula was an atavistic throwback, a primal force unleashed on civilized England, this Dracula thinks of himself as the next step in evolution, Homo Superioris - sitting atop the food chain and preying on his human victims with the indifference of a lion hunting antelope.
It's a fascinating concept that injects a little new blood into the old vampire. Unfortunately, the human characters do not always fair so well, though several have been re-imagined in ways that cast new light on them. Van Helsing (Marz Richards) is no longer a kindly old professor who stumbles upon the truth about vampirism; he's an amusingly vindictive vampire-hunter, following in the family profession, and seeking revenge. Jefferson Reid is not given much to do as Arthur Holmwood, but he is quite funny when repeatedly and pointedly mentioning his engagement to Lucy while Dracula flirts with her. Renfield has been replaced by Mary (April Morrow), whose crazed devotion to her new "Master," is one of the highlights of the show. Dr. Seward (Paul Romero) is transformed into an atheist and believer in Darwinism, but the potential of having this skeptic confront an embodiment of the supernatural is overlooked.
Instead, the script places the focus on Mina Harker (Ainsley Peace), who is now the sister rather than the wife of Jonathan Harker (a character reduced to a brief cameo). Why the change from spouse to sibling? Because Mina doesn't need a husband: the respectable governess is secretly in love with Lucy, a blond heiress. After Lucy (Lauren Sperling) accepts Holmwood's marriage proposal (as camouflage to hide her passion for Mina), Mina wistfully imagines running away with her friend - a wish so far removed from reality that it comes across like foolish Romantic daydream, which undercuts the attempt to present Mina as the real protagonist of the story - a woman chaffing at the restrictions placed on her by 19th century British patriarchal society. (A similar ploy was used in last year's production of Dracula by Theatre 68).
The idea that Dracula may be exploiting the submerged fissures in British society is certainly interesting, but it undercuts part of the fun of the story, which is seeing the repressed, staid women transformed by the Count's bite into ravenous, seductive vampires. It would have been more interesting to see a latent but unacknowledged attraction emerge between Mina and Lucy - though, to be fair, Lucy's transformation into a vicious blood-drinking vixen, seen gleefully sinking her fangs into a helpless baby, is every bit as ghastly as one could hope for.
Though the attempt to turn Mina into a "stronger" character is misguided (she is the smartest one in the book even if the men are too stupid to notice), it's not enough to undermine the play, which efficiently condenses the Stoker's tale into two acts, hitting most of the major highlights and bringing them to undead life with imaginative staging and lighting.
A small venue, the Loft Ensemble Theatre nevertheless gives an impression of space, which is dotted with a few necessary set pieces and decorations that convey the morbid atmosphere of several locations. At key moments, vivid blue light underlines emotional moments with an almost cinematic impact, as when Dracula first takes Mina's hand, indicating the thrall he casts over his victims. A motionless clock on the wall, occasionally punctuated with ticking sounds, suggests the timeless eternity of the vampire's existence. Though a curtain separates the two acts, most of the scene changes take place in full view, and surprisingly they become part of the atmosphere, carried out with smooth efficiency by cloaked figures, suggesting dark supernatural forces at work.
The action is punctuated with some fairly aggressive fight choreography, providing several high-adrenalin moments that contrasts nicely with the more restrained pace of Dracula's almost slow-motion hypnotic attacks on his female victims. Count - pardon me, Mister - Dracula initially appears as a foreigner dressed in some colorful fashion, presumably native to his homeland; he adopts a more traditional vampire garb during his nocturnal attacks, when his long black cloak (suggesting bat wings) would afford a measure of camouflage in the darkness. The effect is a pleasantly old-school approach to horror that feels classic rather than dated; it's nice that, while trying to forge a new vision of Dracula, the play retains the power of this familiar imagery.
On the night we attended, understudy Mick Ignis cut a razor-thin black-clad figure as Dracula, slyly embedding himself into Victorian society while remaining temperamentally aloof. For all the moments of seduction, violence, and intimidation, our favorite was his subtle slip when Dracula - pretending to reference an ancestor but really speaking of himself - starts to say, "I see it all..." but then quickly corrects to say, "I imagine it..." (We know that our description doesn't sound particularly amazing, but the point is that the line is delivered so that the slip is apparent to the audience but not to the characters on stage.)
Though its feminist leanings occasionally go awry (in a third act surprise, Mina announces she wants Dracula to bestow his powers on her so that she can use them for good - a plan that goes predictably wrong), Dracula: Blood Before Dawn serves up a blood-and-thunder climax that is certainly grand if not quite guignol, with exciting swordplay, unexpected deaths, and a rather sadistically gloating moment of triumph by an alleged hero. The dawn breaks not a moment too soon, bringing light to blot out the bloodshed and misery, even if their shadows remain.
Dracula: Blood Before Dawn continues at the LOFT Ensemble with performances on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm. The address is 13442 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks. Get more info at: loftensemble.org.