I suppose a feminist Dracula was inevitable. As adapters seek new methods of resurrecting the ancient vampire, each subsequent version drains a little more life from the undead corpse, until the veins seem tapped dry. Fortunately, Theatre 68’s revisionist production, currently at the NoHo Arts center, offers a badly need transfusion, yielding a full-blooded (and we mean that quite literally) incarnation of the infamous Transylvanian Count.
The conceit is simple yet wonderfully effective: take the female characters from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and push their concerns, doubts, and dreams to the forefront instead of shunting them off to the sideline. This accomplishes two seemingly contradictory things: (1) allowing the script to reuse substantial chunks of the original story while (2) making that story seem totally new, thanks to the altered perspective on those events. Along the way, echoes of other adaptations (Nosferatu, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) are heard, but the play remains its own unique revenant.
As before, Jonathan Harker (Jordan Wall) heads off to the land beyond the forest to seal a real estate deal with a nobleman tired of his dried-up hunting grounds and eager to seek out new life in London. However, before opening the coffin-lid on this familiar narrative, the play begins with an ambient pre-curtain prelude (metaphorically speaking – there is no actual curtain): as the audience enters the small theatre, deranged women twist and turn and gibber like lunatics in an asylum, forming a storm around a silent, central female figure, wrapped in bandages like a leper or a mummy, her unblinking eyes staring into the distance.
Unwrapped, she is revealed t to be Mina (Rachel Zink), who turns out to be the protagonist of the play, which focuses on the character’s severely restricted role in patriarchal Victorian society. Like Stoker’s original, she is smart and accomplished; unlike the novel’s version, this Mina wants to put her talents in the service of her own career, not merely in support of her future husband’s.
Harker, of course, is having none of that, but he inadvertently enables the means for Mina’s rejection of social norms when he sells Carfax Abby to Dracula (Robert Homer Mollohan). The Count heads to England, where he attacks Mina’s friend Lucy (Ariel Hart). Like Mina, Lucy is chafing at the restrictions of her life, but in her case case, the issue is an unwanted marriage to a dull upper-class twit, Arthur Holmwood (Diego Maureira) when she would rather elope with the exciting American adventurer Quincy Morris (Kenneth James). Meanwhile, Dr. John Seward (Jude Evans) ponders the significance of the portentous pronouncements from his patient Renfield (Kristin Lerner), a maniac who devours live insects in order to prolong her own life, while babbling about the coming of the “Master.” Faced with limited options and no way out, Lucy is easy prey for Dracula, who quickly turns her into a lascivious vampire. Seward seeks assistance from Professor Van Helsing (David Caprita), who quickly identifies the source of the problem and leads the threatened men to destroy the corrupted English lass. Dracula then turns his attentions on Mina, who succumbs to an offer of life beyond her current confines. Harker, however, is not willing to give up his wife so easily; guided by Van Helsing, he and the other men pursue the Count back to his homeland for a life-or-death confrontation…
Jayce John’s adaptation mines material overlooked by previous adaptations, particularly the class consciousness lurking in the background. Lucy’s mother does not want her daughter to associate with Mina, whose working-class origins make her an unsuitable companion for a proper English lady. Quincy, the nouveau rich American, is a slightly less dangerous version of Dracula – a foreigner who might tempt Lucy from the path of proper British decorum.
Unfortunately, the feminist elements do not always fit seamlessly with Stoker’s narrative. The play’s underlying joke is that Victorian society is so insufferably misogynistic that Count Dracula seems like a desirable escape route. In order to achieve this, the male characters are rendered in considerably more loathsome terms than in the novel: yes, they were always clueless and patronizing, but now they are obnoxious, vengeful, and even murderous; in essence, they are no longer Victorian characters but 21st century caricatures of Victorians.
Along similar lines, the casting of an actress as Renfield turns the character into a statement on how previous generations treated unruly women as if they were mentally ill. However, the fly-eating Renfield clearly is mentally ill, so it is not as if we can fully see the character as an innocent victim of mindless male repression – a point the play goes out of its way to emphasize by having Van Helsing, desperate for information about Dracula’s whereabouts, threaten the defenseless woman with a knife.
Likewise, some of the differentiation between Mina and Lucy has been lost. Originally, Lucy was the girlish airhead who quickly succumbed to Dracula’s advances, while Mina was the stronger character who was able to resist. Now, both characters leap at Dracula’s offer with equal indiscretion – which is acceptable in Lucy’s case but not so much in Mina’s. Yes, we know she is feeling trapped, but Dracula’s offer of release is clearly (to us if not to her) a pretense. (This is a man who kept his vampire brides cooped up in his musty castle, feeding them the occasional baby, before he left them behind to pursue new pleasures on his own.) Thus, though Mina is meant to be seen as driven by desperation, she comes across as unduly naive; when she later admits her mistake, the realization seems like a belated no-brainer.
Paradoxically, these ill-fitting elements in some ways enhance Dracula, creating an untidy web of contradictory feelings that cannot be easily resolved, thus leaving behind the simple Good-versus-Evil dichotomy of the novel. It’s as if the play is halfway toward treating the Count as a Jim Jones-style cult leader, whose criticisms of society are not without justification, but whose offer of a better alternative turns out to be an illusion he uses to fool his followers into submitting to something even more ghastly – though in this case, his victims drink blood instead of Kool Aid.
Thematic rumblings aside, Theatre 68’s production of Dracula offers an entertaining horror show for Halloween lovers seeking something more than theme parks and haunted houses. The cast is uniformly strong, especially Zink, who maintains our sympathy despite Mina’s dubious choices. Mollohan’s Dracula, introduced in samurai robes and sporting an accent more Baltic than Middle European, initially seems like a campy figure, but he grows much more impressive as the vampire’s nature reveals itself. As Dracula acclimates to his new home, dropping the robes and modifying the accent, Mollohan captures a magnetic, almost atavistic sexuality appropriate for the novel’s version of the character (who was less an oily seducer than an aggressive conqueror).
The Baltic accents work out less well for Dracula’s brides (identified as “Succubi” in the credits), who appear in various guises throughout the play, sometimes as characters, sometimes as window dressing. When they tempt Mina to join them, their seductive urgings sound as if they are coming less from the European Transylvania than from that other Transylvania, the galaxy containing the planet Transexual.
With a bare minimum of scenery, the play suggests a multitude of settings, quickly transitioning from England to Europe and back again, sometimes with the succubi standing in for set decor (e.g., holding candles to simulate light fixtures). Dracula’s attacks on his victims are mesmerizing – horrifying without being overtly violent. Yet violence is not in short supply: the climactic horror scenes are staged with a fascinating mix of thugishness and grace – half barroom brawl, half ballet, with character executing moves that are either gymnastics or mixed martial arts.
And the blood – oh, let us not forget the blood. It erupts more than once during the play, which features not only the expected stakings but also a couple slit throats. On opening night, the death of Lucy featured a geyser that left one character drenched in crimson like Ash in Evil Dead II. (The effect was so over-the-top that we wonder whether or not it was intentional; either way, we hope it is repeated every performance, because it is a clear contender for Best Gore Effect at this year’s Halloween Haunt Awards).
For those familiar with the oft-told tale, it will be no spoiler to mention that, in the end, life returns to normal (at least for the survivors). Harker and Mina resume married life, and Mina is last seen with a baby – a detail from the novel, omitted in most adaptations. The difference here is that the return to normality is not a return to happiness, and the infant represents not rebirth and hope for the future, but a hopeless quagmire for a woman who wanted something more out of life than traditional domesticity. In this version of Dracula, becoming an undead vixen who feeds on babies might not be a viable alternative after all, but the truly soul-destroying horror is having to raise a baby of your own.
Dracula runs through
November 1 UPDATE: extended to November 6-8, 13-15. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and on Sundays at 7Pm. The NoHo Arts Center (website is here) is located at 11136 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood, 91601. Tickets are $25 in advance. Get more info at theatre68.com.