View Full Version : NoHo Dracula

05-22-2009, 09:31 PM
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Last weekend I went to see Dracula at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood. As you can imagine, while hoping to enjoy myself, the prospect of being surprised wasn't much of an expectation. This would be the tenth or eleventh live-action version I've personally seen. When the program read "written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston" expectations changed little.

But then...

We were told this was a ninety-minute piece without interruption. The cast included a character I did not recognize. And the set...! The back wall contained a huge rendition of John Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare" and the whole production design clearly mirrored that famous painting.
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Seating myself, I waited and listened to wind and waves, plus the periodic squeaks of bats floating among the rafters above.

And when the play began, my first thought was Doctor Mabuse, the silent German classic about a mad scientist in 1920s Berlin. Most productions of this play take place in a generic Edwardian locale. Not so here! One hallmark created from the start was a vivid sense of time and place. Another was something I cannot ever recall in another Dracula production--genuine thrills. As well as every single character (with one exception) made unique and interesting. Plus surprise--no easy task that!

Quite simply, this was the best staged Dracula I've ever seen.

Using the Dean-Balderston script as a foundation, director Ken Sawyer took off in a wonderfully weird direction. The first scene was Lucy (Darcy Jo Martin) calling out for Mina amid a storm, while shadows against a tattered sail showed the fate of the Captain of the Demeter. Moments later, Renfield (Alex Robert Holmes) leads an eager Mina (Mara Marini) to the Count himself (Robert Arbogast). Literally, the first time we see Dracula his is rising from behind a coffin, nude and welcoming a new bride/victim/lover into his arms.

Soon after, Dr. Lily Seward (Karesa McElheny) is in her laboratory, where Butterworth (Chad Coe) brings in Mina's corpse for an unauthorized autopsy. Watching over this is Wells (Tahni DeLong), a hunchbacked maid. Jonathan Harker (J.R. Mangels) bursts in, horrified at his future mother-in-law's action in grave-robbing but ultimately understanding of her goal. Whatever killed Mina now afflicts Lucy and nothing at all will stop Seward from trying to save her! This includes summoning her old colleague from Holland, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Jay Willick).

Elements going into this production include tiny tributes to a dozen or more genres, conventions and past gothic tales. The hunchbacked maid harkens back to Universal's House of Dracula while Dracula gives Lucy a music box a la Dark Shadows. A transfusion occurs on stage in a lovely Grand Guignol moment while there's even a tribute to Salem's Lot in the use of a window and a little child (one of Mina's young victims). Despite what one might think from parent warning accompanying publicity for the show, there is only a little nudity--Dracula's backside and Lucy's breasts. But the whole production is very disturbing--an adjective most adaptations of Stoker's novel seek to earn but very few do. For example, when Dracula mesmerizes Wells the action veers into aspects of sexual submission. The idea that the children bitten by Mina have become her slaves is used--for the first time in any adaptation I can recall. Seward, despairing over her child and seeing no hope, kneels in prayer but spits out the words "There is no God!"

Mightily impressive, along with dozens of little bits one wonders at not having been explored until now. Hints of a past romance and continuing attraction between Seward and Van Helsing. Actually using the homoerotic potential between Dracula and Renfield--not overblown but there without any mistaking. The stated idea--never explained--that Lucy and Dracula were somehow together in the past. Renfield's eagerness when Seward gives him morphine to calm down. The choice of music to which Lucy listens on her gramaphone!

But we must take the not-so-good with the excellent. As per usual, Harker remains the most thankless role in Dracula. His character, or at least the potential for one, seems lost amid the (understandably) more interesting cast surrounding him. Such is too often the problem with Young Hero parts, along with Ingenues. Likewise Lucy without the influence of the King Vampire really is, as she claims at one point, a pale and uninteresting character--just an ordinary girl. The plot makes certain leaps and one is hard pressed to sometimes see how the characters go from one place to another. At the climax, we watch Harker and Seward and Van Helsing literally stand by doing nothing at a crucial moment, and we are left wondering 'Why?'

Having said all that I return to my main point--this was the best theatrical production of Dracula I have personally seen.