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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Ellen Geer, in her adaptation of the novel at her family's theatre, Theatricum Botanicum, has gone back to the source, eschewing the many film versions which leapt from scene to scene for shock value. At three hours, this makes for a longish evening. The plus is that the production has a real Victorian feel, with such character development as introducing the three proposals playfully parried by beautiful Lucy Westenra, which makes her ultimate fate more tragic. The minus is that many of the scenes seem repetitive and the transition from Dracula's castle to Lucy's parlor to Renfield in the insane asylum are a little confusing. Why are we here and who are these people?
The story is so familiar and the adaptation sticks so closely to it that familiarity can bridge the gap for those who know it. Such occasional anachronisms as "stranger in a strange land" stick out, but for the most part the adaptation is faithful. It's augmented by two readers, Melora Marshall and Mark Lewis, who express the actors' interior thoughts and embroider the action somewhat unnecessarily.
Although the real Vlad Dracula, called the Impaler for his nasty way with his enemies, is the historical inspiration for this character, Stoker's inspiration came from a short story written by Dr. Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron, the dashing, decadent poet who was the rock star and womanizer of his day. The story is reportedly based on a fragment dashed off by Byron himself during that remarkable summer when he and his house guests the Shelleys each wrote a ghost story. 18-year-old Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein. Polidori, somewhat of an outsider, made his vampire an aristocratic fiend, even naming him Lord Ruthven after the character based on Byron in Lady Caroline Lamb's novel. Bram Stoker, an Irish writer who was actor Henry Irving's manager, loved the concept and kept it in his own book.
The image of Lord Byron is a hard act to follow. Frank Langella in the film version came close. Chad Jason Scheppner in the present version makes a limber, fierce Dracula. His declaration that he has come to England to create a new order of controlling beings and the necessity to sleep in a coffin lined with the earth of his native land may contribute to the story's perennial relevance. There's also an enduring fascination with the sexual quality of the blood-sucking, as though desire is based on a longing to acquire the essence of the other and bend him/her to one's will.
Geer is aces as a director, peopling the stage with cringing townsfolk and exotically choreographed vampirettes. He draws strong performances particularly from Christina Howard as Lucy Westenra and Aaron Hendry as Jonathan Harker. She's also really good with scary death scenes.
Dracula benefits from an outdoor performance on the arena stage of Theatricum Botanicum, the property in Topanga Canyon which became actor Will Geer's family home when he was victimized by the McCarthy era blacklisting. It's been maintained by his family as a theatereand acting conservatory ever since. With live oaks growing out of the stage and real bats swooping overhead almost on cue, it's a perfect atmosphere for this piece and the others in the Botanicum magic season which includes The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Blithe Spirit.
The story begins with lawyer Jonathan Harker visiting Count Dracula's Transylvania castle where he is forced to arrange Dracula's visit to England. Here coaches are drawn by girls playing horses or slinking through the woods with wolf heads. The horse choreography is superb, the wolf heads less so. One of the play's most stunning sequences is the ocean voyage where the hapless ship is caught in a storm and, of course, all the sailors become Dracula's personal lunch bunch.
In England Dracula fixates on propagating his new order through vampirizing beautiful women Like Lucy and Mina, Jonathan Harker's fiancée. He is a formidable opponent, somewhat admired by Dr. Van Helsing who heads the posse that finally destroys him.
Costume Designer Charlotte Kruse's creations include a red satin-lined black cloak that swirls divinely whenever Dracula makes an exit and a super-large cross that Dr. Van Helsing wears like a phallic symbol. Marshall McDaniel's original score, played by cello and piano, features choral arrangements and is as integral a part of the play as its characters fears and fantasies.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater