There are vampires all around, many of them claiming to be Dracula. Yet you may not actually know the original.
It’s not Gary Oldman, despite the bold title of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s not even Bela Lugosi, 60 years earlier, in the classic 1931 film noir. It’s the main character in Stoker’s novel, published way back in 1897.
If you don’t read the novel (few folks do), you can meet a version of the original Count this Halloween season, at the NoHo Arts Center. And you’ll come away with at least a Cliff Notes sense of the story that brought him into the world.
Theatre 68’s Dracula, fresh from last year’s New York debut, also adds a twist. Or — to extend the martini metaphor — it cuts the sweetening effect of vermouth to expose the bitter taste of raw gin (vodka, for you millennials).
This Dracula intends to be feminist, bringing out the sexual subtext of Stoker’s tale. (After all, the Count does leave several enslaved wives at home while he makes a play for two younger women. And the hapless females all need a group of valiant men — with Victorian ideals and an array of weapons — to save them.)
Dracula‘s pre-show makes this intention crystal clear. As the audience files in, six women in various stages of distress wander the tiny stage, while one stands silent and faceless — her head and torso mummified in bands of lace. When the lights dim, the others unwrap her, and the play begins.
As it unwinds, however, the drama does not quite fulfill the promise of this elegant and powerful beginning.
The opening’s gender-centered tension continues at first. We watch young man-on-the-make Jonathan Harker smugly belittle his smart bride-to-be, Mina; and we see a desperate Mrs. Westenra bully her daughter Lucy into wedding a wealthy noble.
But then we slip into a swamp. The three young gents who’ve been competing for Lucy’s hand, horrified as she falls under the vampire’s spell, join Dr. Van Helsing in a crusade to save her. The ensuing male heroics nudge women and their experience aside and usurp at least half the play.
It’s the same swamp Stoker fell into. His novel starts out rich in sexual and psychological suggestion. But he needs a thrilling climax, so he tosses it all under the wheels of the oldest trope in patriarchal tale-telling — a heroic chase to slay an evil monster.
Playwright Jayce Johnson faced the adapter’s dilemma: How far can you alter your source to display what you see beneath its surface?
I wish he’d gone farther, to make the play what the pre-show promised.
However … Within the script’s confines, the Theatre 68 troupe does a very creditable job. Set & light designer Danny Cistone achieves a remarkable sense of period — and variety — in a closet-like space. Director Sophia Watt almost never lets the pace flag, moving people in and out briskly and cleverly using four women — “Succubi” in the program — to change and set scenes, from Castle Dracula (as his brides) to a madhouse (as attendants) to a London estate (as carved statues).
Robert Homer Mollohan handles the title role with energy and invention, giving us a Count who’s mercurial in his moods yet consistent in his worldview. (He’s sometimes unintelligible, but he’s not a copy of Oldman or Lugosi.) As Mina, Rachel Zink holds down the center from pre-show to closing; she’s the story’s moral and emotional core, and emerges — a bit to her own surprise, in a nice nuance — as a powerful woman all the others must reckon with.
The standout performance — and Johnson’s boldest piece of writing — comes with the asylum inmate Renfield. As in the novel, the spider-eating devotee helps “the Master” find his way to England; but in this telling, she’s a woman — and a Cassandra, battling her doctor in a complex intimacy and frankly warning Mina that the men in her life will enslave her. Kristin Lerner never lets “madness” discredit her character’s experience, and holds the hidden horrors of patriarchal domination firmly before our eyes.
The other actors are playing on the same field, in terms of energy and focus — but Johnson’s script (like Stoker’s novel) gives them too little to work with. David Caprita nicely shades Van Helsing as a priggish egoist, Jude Evans lets some of Dr. Seward’s tangled ethical confusion show, and Perry Smith presents the most complex and interesting Mrs. Westenra I’ve yet seen. But in trying to flesh out their slender characters. they’re doing work the writer avoided.
To be fair, part of Dracula‘s problem is publicity. The program’s cover burns a shocking image into our minds — the fully dressed, decaying corpse of a woman. The press packet portrays the play as “delving into the depths of women’s suffrage, and the violent culture that oppressed them.” (Though oddly, the lavishly printed program says nothing at all about the play or the troupe’s artistic intentions.)
This publicity makes us expect a different play than the one we get.
Johnson’s Dracula begins and ends with Mina in chains — of lace at first, of domesticity at the end. It doesn’t shock or shout; it isn’t a revolutionary tract. It portrays the problem, with the elegiac tone of many feminist classics, from The Yellow Wallpaper to The Bell Jar. (And the vampire may still drive the story, but he’s more a horrid paragon of patriarchy than a supernatural being.)
This play — the one troupe performs — is worth experiencing. It’s as good a telling of the Dracula story as you’re likely to see, and powerfully moves the feminist subtext to the forefront.
It’s also worth rewriting, to cut the heroic chase down to size and make the secondary characters real people we can connect with.
I hope Johnnson finishes what he has so well begun.
Dracula, adapted from the novel by Jayce Johnson, directed by Sophia Watt.
Presented by Theatre 68, at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd.
Friday and Saturday at 8:00, Sunday at 7:00, through November 1.