Review by Doug Iden of Dracula: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Halloween came early this year as Dracula swooped into the sold-out Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater. It was also appropriate that opening night was Friday the 13th. But this production is not a trick but, rather, a treat filled with classic gothic horror and spooktacular special effects.
Based upon the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker and dramatized by Steven Dietz, Dracula relates the chilling story of a Romanian vampire who seduces two London women, which leads to killings, revenge and an ultimate chase to destroy the leader of the “un-dead”. The novel was written as a series of diary entries, letters, ship’s log entries, etc., written by various characters so there is no central voice or protagonist. Because of secrecy, doubt, disbelief and Victorian mores, the primary characters do not communicate with each other which allows Dracula to persist in his plan. The play follows a similar script with much of the exposition directed to the audience through dramatic readings of letters and a significant diary entry.
The play opens with Renfield (Billy Chase) setting the scene and then, casually, chewing on a mouse as his entrée. We learn quickly that he is a vampire who has been imprisoned in a hospital run by Dr. Seward (Kyle Brumley). Chase appears frequently throughout the show as the precursor and prophet of the darkness to come as he calls for his “master” while deliciously alternating between mad ravings and sinister prophesies. Seward is in love with Lucy (Miranda McGee) who does not share his feelings. Lucy’s best friend is Mina (Caitlin McWethy) with whom she shares her secret desires for love. Their friendship is capped by a lesbian flirtation.
Mina is married to Jonathan Harker (Crystian Wiltshire), an attorney who visits Dracula (Giles Davies) in his Romanian castle to settle a land purchase for the Count in London. During his stay, Harker is plagued with an unsettling feeling about the Count and his vixens (Candice Handy, Maggie Lou Rader and Tess Talbot). He escapes but becomes deathly sick in a Budapest hospital. Mina rescues him and returns to London but Dracula has also arrived and has devilish plans for Mina and Lucy. Enter Van Helsing (Seward’s mentor played by Jim Hopkins) who theorizes that Dracula is a vampire and that the women are in dire danger. Thereafter, the action becomes intense.
Davies portrays Dracula as a dangerous, fanatical creature who slithers across the stage and suddenly appears on-stage in frightening fashion. This interpretation of Dracula as more bloodthirsty than seductive is closer to Stoker’s vision than to recent Hollywood portrayals. Davies is sufficiently sinister to carry the role. Brumley (as Harker) is rather weak-willed and solicitous of Lucy but cannot save her from the bloodlust of Dracula. McGee plays Lucy, initially, as a saucy flirt who becomes severely ill when attacked by Dracula and, eventually, displays vampiric behavior. McGee’s transition is compelling. Mina is the transformative character who overcomes a Dracula bite in hopes of defeating the demon. McWethy starts meekly but quickly realizes the danger and is instrumental in the final battle.
All of the elements of the theater combine to create the tension in this demonic, atmospheric world. The set, created by Shannon Moore, is stark with a sharp, jagged structure designed to create unease. The rear center of the stage is dominated by a large bed in front of a glass doorway leading outside. Many surprise entries occur through the door. Black ceiling-high curtains frame the doorway. There is also a clever use of a stage trap door and some flying tricks resembling Batman. With minimal prop movement but creative lighting, the scene effortlessly shifts from a London bedroom to Transylvania to a hospital room/cell. Justen Locke’s design alternates between bright spotlights, moody shadows, eerily blood-red lighting when Dracula attacks and a very effective latticed spot in the hospital cell. The illusions are heightened by eerie video projections and sound designed by Douglas Borntrager including thunder, spooky music and the disembodied voice of Dracula surrounding the audience.
The costumes (Amanda McGee) reflect the black and white, conservative Victorian era juxtaposed with the glaringly lurid dress of the vampires and vixens. And the wigs. Scary wigs worn by the vixens, a black tangled wig for Dracula and Lucy’s flouncy locks. The direction of Brian Isaac Phillips choreographs all of the elements into a deliciously frightening evening.
It shouldn’t be too scary outside to enjoy the guilty pleasures of Dracula’s castle inside which continues at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company through November 4. For tickets, call the box office at 513-381-2273 or email at www.cincyshakes.com. The next production is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer running from November 17 through December 9.