It will never make the list of the world’s greatest books, yet Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula
is still a bracing read. Moving from Transylvania to England and back
with a kind of epic sweep, the book unfolds through a series of journal
entries, notes, letters and newspaper articles. The novel works without
a third-person narrator as the reader gets to know characters through
their words, recorded thoughts and others’ descriptions. The only
character we don’t hear from is Count Dracula himself, who moves
inscrutably through the adventure, resembling more a disease or
addiction than a character.
The 1927 stage adaptation of Dracula,
by undistinguished playwrights Hamilton Deane and John Balderston,
shrinks the palette considerably to fit the story on the stage, moving
all the action to Dr. Seward’s sanatorium, deleting characters and
inexplicably interchanging some names. This version, which starred Bela
Lugosi, was transferred to the screen in 1931. Lugosi’s vampire was the
ultimate illegal immigrant, an oily, somewhat unconvincing lounge
lizard with the dietary habits of a very large mosquito. Still, he
provided enough Depression-era chills to indelibly set the parameters
of undead etiquette. The 1977 Broadway revival, which starred a
smoldering Frank Langella, reincarnated the count as a kind of toxic
matinee idol, which in turn inspired Ann Rice’s steamy LeStat tales,
Stephanie Meyers’ popular Twilight novels and the current moody, densely charactered HBO series True Blood.
Stake night: Aileen Kenneson and Gerrit Vander Werff Jr. in Appleseed Productions’ Dracula.
There is a lot to admire in the current Appleseed staging of Dracula,
now at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave. Director
Patricia Elise Catchouny, who also designed the set and costumes, has a
clear approach to the play. She presents the unabashed melodrama in a
series of simple, elegant compositions, keeping the dialogue moving
along briskly, which is a wise move considering the verbal flourishes
that mark the 1920s style of popular playwriting.
Although her design retains the
black-and-white scheme with strategic splashes of red that marked
Edward Gorey’s set for the famous 1977 production, the effective
Appleseed design also shows a marked Expressionist influence.
Especially welcome is the appropriately moody lighting and sound design
by William Edward White. Less successful is the decision to use modern
dress, which clashes with the florid dialogue and forces a lone script
update: Dracula has arrived by plane rather than ship. When the count
appears for his first entrance wearing the iconic opera cape and
tuxedo, it doesn’t seem to arouse suspicion from anyone except the
vigilant Dr. Van Helsing.
The Dracula cast does yeoman
work. In the title role, Gerrit Vander Werff Jr. is a strangely
self-effacing bloodsucker, so mild-mannered that at his first entrance
only that cape and a Mittle European accent identify him as our
villain. With her flowing long hair and ethereal demeanor, Melissa
Brass looks the part as Lucy. However, once she is bitten by our
thirsty anti-hero, Lucy’s outbursts, meant to signal that something has
gone very wrong, make her seem as petulant as the whiny divas of MTV’s The Hills.
Yet Vander Werff and Brass are considerably more effective in the
beautifully choreographed night visit to the hapless Lucy, staged here
in the Langella tradition as a seduction rather than the animal attack
suggested by the novel.
David Simmons takes an effectively
measured approach to Abraham Van Helsing, playing the good doctor not
as a fusty old professor, but rather a quietly intense champion who is
one small step from an action hero. The script doesn’t give Jonathan
Harker, a haunted figure in the novel, much to do, but Christopher
James does the best he can, taking the character from callow suitor to
determined vampire hunter. As Dracula’s mad servant Renfield, Alan
Stillman embraces the play’s over-the-top style, assuring fireworks
when he’s on stage. And in the role of Dr. Seward, Lucy’s desperate
father, stalwart Tom Minion gives solid support.
As traditional and satisfying as trick-or-treat and bobbing for apples, Appleseed’s Dracula reminds us that on stage at least the bogeyman can be banished by the time the curtain goes down. Now about that 401K . . .
This production runs through Nov. 8. See Times Table for information.