"... a madhouse feeding frenzy with a vengeance"
As someone who has never driven through the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania (and who has?), but has negotiated the 405 northbound quite regularly, I would still imagine that this part of Romania to be perhaps a tad scarier than Orange County, although not quite in the way imagined by the Irish writer Bram Stoker, whose graphic horror novel, “Dracula,” left its giant, bloody fang marks on the landscape for all time.
Golden West College’s season opener, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” is a world of lunacy where once-reasonable men and woman are now evil mutants with a never-ending bloodlust for the living. This deliciously creepy version, written by Steven Dietz, who might possibly be the most prolific playwright you’ve never heard of, presents a relatively faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Victorian horror masterpiece that pits good men against evil and revives the undead Carpathian count.
Stoker wrote his novel in 1897, followed by numerous other playwrights penning their own adaptations, with many ending up just a bit campy and cheesy. Dietz, however, stays true to the English neo-Gothic thriller, but has structured the two-act hysteria-driven play with flashbacks and detours that are at times confusing unless you’re paying attention.
Playing through October 14th on the Mainstage, Director Tom Amen has tackled this version with theatrical gusto, maintaining a sense of mystery, sexuality and terror. Rather than a strictly bad-guy-versus-good-guy theme, Amen expands the script’s layers reminding us that our fear of the unknown is our greatest predator and nemesis.
Arriving on the stage of Golden West College, my first impression immediately conjures up the gory themes of the Parisian Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, and a set that might be described as a work of art. Ghostly demonic minions loom in the fog, seemingly unnoticed by anyone…watching, waiting, frozen in a netherworld.
Shadows and large pointy things loom out of the layers of levels on the stage, representing rooms, hospitals, cemeteries. A large symbolic tree in the rear has black shiny metal shards pointing up, silhouetted by an oversized harvest blood moon. Mood and accent lights dimly shine from behind with revelation of form, giving off eerie spikes and shadows on the floor, mixing in with the designer’s paint patterns, and with just the right hint of menace and mayhem.
Settling in, I could swear I hear wolves howling in the distance, wind whistling through the trees, Gregorian chants reverberating far away, the sound of starved vixens tearing bloodied flesh, a hint of garlic in the air…and in other corners, the piercing shrieks of madmen echoing through an insane asylum – all indicators of the silently approaching scourge ahead.
The scenes take place in various locales: an English estate, a moldy Transylvanian castle, dockyards, an asylum, a cell and tombs. Tying all these scenes together is Patrick Peterson’s Renfield, who delivers the play’s prologue, and who at first is well-dressed and erudite, but soon reveals himself to be a raving lunatic, confined to an asylum. Delightfully snacking on insects and rats while waiting for his “master” to confer immortality upon him, he is bound to Dracula, and his maniacal outbursts reveal a psychotic conduit to the count. Renfield’s every line is delivered with the ferocious glee of gallows humor.
Cut to the bedroom scene: Lifelong friends Mina (Carolyn Feres) and Lucy (Katherine Heflin) are in bed sharing secrets about the men in their lives. Mina is engaged to be married to Jonathan Harker (Alex Jean), a solicitor who is away on a business trip in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. Lucy reveals that she has had three separate marriage proposals and doesn’t know which one to accept. At one point, she says to Mina, "Why can't they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?"
One of Lucy’s suitors, Dr. Seward (Matthew Cobb), comes to call shortly afterward, and divulges his deep feelings for her. In fact, he asks her to marry him, but she sweetly rebuffs him and, to distract him from his deep hurt and heartache, he turns back to his work of unlocking the mystery of Renfield’s lunacy with full gusto.
Lucy, who is more like a child, is innocent and very vulnerable, and inspires everyone around her to protect her. If Mina is everyone's mother, Lucy is like everyone's wife. She is naturally sexy and more voluptuous than Mina and becomes Dracula’s first victim in the story. Meanwhile, Harker’s letters to Mina depict, at first, Count Dracula and Transylvania as being exciting and mysterious, but letters later become fearfully nightmarish. Eventually, he stops writing.
Upon meeting Count Dracula, we see him in a monstrous sort of state with little control over his body or his life. He is isolated in the Carpathian Mountains with few resources left at his disposal to quench the thirst of his Vampiric disease, and without fresh blood to renew his tissues, he grows weaker and older every day. In the fragmented dialogue, Dracula reminds us subtly of a dichotomy – to survive, he too must eat.
Lawrence Hemingway plays the role of Dracula with demonic triumph. Initially underplayed to denote the ancient withering from lack of sustenance, the cape-swirling vampire seduces Lucy for a blood-sucking meal, and seems to energize into a more vigorous and virile creature with even more charming and deadly guile than before. Soon, Mina begins to notice Lucy’s behavior has become very strange and sends for Dr. Seward to make a diagnosis. He is unsure of what might be the problem, but finds Lucy with no memory, deathly ill, with an unusual mark on her neck. Lucy’s health becomes increasingly worse, so Dr. Seward sends for his friend and mentor, Abraham Van Helsing (Scott Keister). He secretly recognizes the marks on her neck as a vampire bite and treats her, but doesn’t reveal the cause.
Upon Harker’s return, Mina discovers him to be deeply changed and traumatized. He tells her he cannot remember what happened to him but that the secret lies in his journal, if she feels she must know. She and Van Helsing discover from the notes that Dracula hypnotized him to do his bidding while in Transylvania, to ensure he would obtain the England estate.
The count makes his way to England, and to the property that is located next to an insane asylum. Yes, the very same asylum that is run by the famous Van Helsing, vampire hunter and archenemy of Count Dracula, with Dr. Seward as the resident doctor.
The story then lurches into a madhouse feeding frenzy with a vengeance from insane liberated women, wholesale decapitations and transfusions, to animal abuse, and more. Lucy acquires her fangs, and the mutilation of “the head, the hands and the heart” becomes the clarion cry of Van Helsing. By the end, Count Dracula seems no more insane or monstrous than anyone else.
Dracula’s two vixen minions are played by Lynne Pham and Marisa Shlichtman. Carrie Vinikow has multiple roles as the Waitress, Maid and Female Attendant. The Male Attendant is Ray Popovich. Demon characters are Luke Brodowski, Fernando Negron, Diana Kim, Christina Yang and Cecily Rye.
Tim Mueller’s set is a striking macabre marvel, enhanced by Crystal Shomph’s evocative lighting and Dave Mickey’s excellent sound design. Jojo Siu’s costumes put a historical fashion edge on things and characters looked very authentic. Wigs, Hair and Makeup was brilliantly achieved by Laura Hughes. There are also some dazzling intense special effects with blood and other goriness, which is, thankfully, kept to a minimum overall.
Compliments to the whole technical crew for a perfectly-timed, well-synched and choreographed production!
Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” continues at Golden West College Mainstage Theatre with four more performances, October 11th -13th at 7:30pm and Sunday, October 14th at 2pm. Highly, Highly Recommended! Please use caution for younger children, due to graphic content. Tickets are available at https://tickets.gwctheater.com/TheatreManager/1/online…
Chris Daniels Arts Reviewer www.theshowreport.org