Happy Holidays everyone. Are you ready for a new year? Did you enjoy your Thanksgiving food coma? How about the plethora of Christmas trees that have sprouted up behind your neighbors’ windows, aren’t they delightful! Yes, it most certainly a warm and cozy time of the year, away from the macabre sights of October. Yet just when you thought you were safely nestled in the cheer of the Holidays Halloween strikes one last time in 2015 with another classic horror tale brought to the stage by the folks at Different Stages.
Steven Dietz’s Dracula is a staged adaptation of the classic gothic horror novel by Bram Stoker that tells of Mina and Lucy, two young British women who find themselves the targets of the newly arrived Count Dracula’s sinister machinations, and of their loved ones’ efforts to save their souls.
Housed in the Vortex Rep’s intimate theatre, Dracula’s set, designed by Ann Marie Gordon, artfully divides the stage into three sectors to allow multiple scenes to occur concurrently: a bedroom on a raised platform, an open space downstage for multiple locations, and a padded cell in an asylum. The result was a visual ensemble that allowed actors to stay in character while alone and without lines, most noticeably Charles P. Stites as the madman Renfield continually sitting in his padded cell, silently muttering to himself, and scribbling in his notebook. The effect was truly unsettling any time my gaze would drift his way, particularly once when I found Stites staring directly into my eyes without breaking contact. Director Melissa Vogt skillfully blocked the cast within one and multiple scenes without visual concerns. My only difficulty with the multi-scene style came from an intense moment roughly halfway through Act I in which three scenes culminated loudly and concurrently; the casts’ varying degrees of projection/enunciation led to some difficultly in understanding everything that was happening in this moment.
The rest of the production’s design was skillfully crafted with only a few instances of distraction. Patrick Anthony’s light design maintained a surreal/haunting atmosphere throughout with vivid colors as opposed to the bleak gloom typical to gothic horror. Furthermore, David DeMaris’s sound design bolstered scenes with haunting melodies, but other sound effects, such as disembodied voices in the air, had a habit of cutting off quickly leaving a noticeable gap where the audio was. Lowell Bartholomee’s video designs upon a large “window” far upstage added effective establishing backdrops that maintained the gothic vibe of the production, though one particular projection of a wolf inside the moon felt discordant with the rest of the shots. I was thoroughly impressed with Helen Parish’s props, many of which concealed fake blood upon them that would appear for wounds and consumption; it was rather effective in a visceral way. My one prop concern comes from the chain that bound Renfield which would occasionally rattle too loudly when a scene didn’t focus on him. Similar to the blood props, there were a few moments in which characters would grow or lose vampire fangs without obviously inserting/removing them; the casts’ sleight of hand was thoroughly impressive in this regard.
Dracula’s cast was a mixed bag, though there was no one character who made or broke the show. Taylor Flanagan and Jessica Riley (Mina and Lucy respectively) were strong leads in a similar fearful yet hopeful sense. Of the two, Riley had the better opportunity to show off her talents as the Count’s influence steadily corrupts her, transitioning from a typical young woman to a sickly creature. However, their respective male counterparts (Will Douglas as Harker, and Trey Deason as Seward) were not as convincing in their roles. Douglas was successfully primp, proper, and British, but spoke in a stunted manner with an occasionally faltering accent. Deason’s performance was often lackluster, with his enunciation often leading to confused moments that made me and other audience members wonder if they were meant to be read straight or comically. Of course, JM Specht as the titular Count Dracula was delightfully menacing, complete with a proper Transylvanian accent that has become synonymous with the character. Yet the two strongest cast members were the aforementioned Stites as Renfield, and Beau Paul as Professor Van Helsing. Stites knows how to shift gracefully between seemingly innocent (almost humorously so) and horrifyingly spouting praise to his master. Paul’s entrance clearly announces his status as the most knowledgeable character in the cast, which pairs well with his portrayal of Van Helsing as determined yet obviously world-weary. The two make an intense balance of love and hatred towards Dracula, and are arguably the most driven performances in the whole show.
I won’t deny I find it odd that Dracula should be performed after the Halloween season, especially now that shops all over town are adorned with Christmas decorations, but the classic tale is no less poignant outside of the typical horror season. Most of us know this story well, but if you’re a fan of the tale then you’ll find Different Stages’ Dracula to be a refreshing portrayal of Bram Stoker’s classic novel (especially if you want a break from the omnipresent Holiday cheer).
Different Stages’ Dracula continues playing at the Vortex Repertory Company every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm until December 12th with an extra performance on Wednesday, December 9th.