Quill Theatre’s ‘Dracula’ has little bite
Read More: Anna Bialkowski, Axle Burtness, Billy Christopher Mauphin, Irene Kuykendall, Jessica Smith, John Mincks, Katie Ellis, Melissa Johnston Price, Rebecca Turner, Skyler Broughman, The Gottwald Theatre, Virginia Fields
The character and novel of Dracula have been social pablum since Bram Stoker wrote the story in 1887. It’s a well written novel and a very good example of Victorian Gothic Horror writing.
In our generation, its greatest success lies in its commercialization. The Stoker Estate (and perhaps Bela Legosi) have been the greatest beneficiaries of the creation. The source material has leant itself to reinterpretation 1,000 different ways, most popularly in parody form (Count Chocula cereal to the exploitation film Blacula).
All horror literature is a reaction to the political and social mores of the day. Stoker exploited the mystical undead as reaction to the highly moralistic, straitlaced language and behavior of Victorian England late in Queen Victoria’s reign.
We are somewhat disoriented from the beginning of this production. At rise of curtain the Victorian virgins Lucy and Mina frolic and play on a big brass bed cuddling and embracing in suggestive ways that seem out of place for Victorian England.
Dramatically, the scene is meant to establish the purity that is about to defiled, but staging them that intimately plays into modern horror conventions wherein overt sexuality justifies the fate delivered by the likes of Dracula and Freddy Kruger.
From such an auspicious beginning I looked forward to a Victorian struggle of Conservative Intellectualism (Seward and Van Helsing) versus the raw sexual and charismatic lure of Count Dracula. And indeed the casting of Axle Burtness as the Count brings this intention most of the way. Burtness uses his stature and sexuality to do most of the heavy lifting.
What I had failed to remember is that the novel’s success had much to do with its narrative form. The book is a series of narrations from the first hand journals of Doctors Seward, Van Helsing and, for lack of a better term, Real Estate Agent Jonathan Harker. In fact, the Count is a minor physical presence in the novel but has a sweeping presence nevertheless because he is spoken of throughout.
On stage the Count’s presence is reduced and we do not have the benefit of him being constantly talked about. The focus then turns to the Victorian couples who are just not as interesting.
The deficit is somewhat compensated by the emphasis on the character of Renfield (John Mincks, seen below).
Renfield is a “zoophagous maniac,” that is, he takes pleasure in drinking animal blood. He is treated by Dr. Seward (Billy Christopher Mauphin) who also tends to Lucy (Virginia Fields), one of the desirable women from Act I, Scene I. Metaphorically, Renfield, the drinker of rat blood, is the rat in a cage being studied by Dr. Seward.
The deficit is also reduced dramatically with the appearance of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Melissa Johnston Price), a Jewish Dutch doctor who was mentor to Dr. Seward and is called in once Lucy begins showing signs of fading health. Van Helsing quickly sees the bites on her neck and diagnoses: “Nosferatu,” the German word for vampire.
Once again, Jew to the rescue.
Unfortunately, this production never finds its groove. The script’s issues are compounded by other production problems. In whole, the show just didn’t look ready to open.
A contributing factor this time was the Gottwald Theatre itself. Not a great theatrical space. It portends intimacy but it’s too big to be cozy. The best use of the space other than proscenium was by Quill itself in its production of David Robbins’ Sam and Carol. As I remember, done in the round on the floor. Jan Powell solved the problem.
Dracula the play, would benefit from an intimate staging. As it was, there was a proscenium stage with some clever levels fashioned on the floor below. One served as Renfield’s pit. The levels allowed for contemporaneous action from different spaces on the set, sometimes to good effect, but more often causing problems of focus when you didn’t know where to watch.
The levels on the floor were critical because the proscenium stage section, dominated by the bed, was a source of continuing confusion; sometimes a bedroom, sometimes another space. It became strange as people seemed to walk into the bedroom from nowhere as if it were the drawing room at Lady Bracknell’s house.
Behind the bed were hanging doors backed by ripped material hung on the wall. Some doors had chairs behind them where actors sat until their scene came. Obviously, the hanging doors and ragged walls represent the street outside, but were the actors sitting behind those doors supposed to be in those houses only to traverse their way into the bedroom space?
Jessica Smith’s design was somewhat confusing.
Also confusing was the costume designs of Anna Bialkowski. Dracula’s black-on-black Johnny Cash look was spot on but the women’s costumes not so much. Melissa Johnston Price was a woman playing a man (Van Helsing) so she was appropriately dressed in Victorian men’s clothes which included pants (even though the pants didn’t look Victorian) but Lucy and Mina (Fields and Rebecca Turner) were also often curiously dressed like men in waistcoats and white slacks.
Skyler Broughman’s lighting design was effective and helpful in the effort to make the experience cohesive.
The actors were only marginally better prepared than the technical elements. The cast benefitted by some talented veterans, but as a whole only a few actors dug deep enough to make their performances very interesting.
Johnston Price lent gravitas and stability to the action as Van Helsing. She has a lot of heavy dispositional lifting, some of which boarded on the absurdly informational.
Van Helsing is an older Jewish Dutch doctor.
I support cross casting when it makes sense artistically, that is if the creative team finds an advantage to see a character in a way not considered before. I could discern no plan here. The objective couldn’t be to bring a “motherly” force, Ms. Johnston-Price played a man. If there is a feminist perspective to vampire hunting, it was allusive.
Johnston-Price was also encumbered by a very rough “Freud in Vienna” accent. Several more weeks of coaching might have gotten her there.
Speaking of accents, Burtness had a lot to overcome. He had to move past the “I want to suck your blood” stereotype.
To be fair, Burtness softened the strangeness of his dialect with pitch, timbre and volume somewhat effectively, but not enough to fully solve the issue. He was hard to hear and understand too often. Again, more coaching.
On the whole Burtness gave a decent performance. He pounced on his victims well. He probably could have talked many of the audience members to offer up their necks.
Dracula is easy to cartoon for good reason. Man bites necks and morphs into animals. Stoker wrote him as a dark, complicated and troubled character. The Gothic man, slave to his lusts and conflicted about his great destructive responsibilities. The character’s complexity is exacerbated by his brief physical appearances onstage. He has precious time to establish all of these nuances of character.
Dracula’s physical staging in this production had no real punch to it. Each appearance needed to shake the cobwebs off the scenes that preceded them. This is a director issue. The actor’s assignment was to find the changing intensions, the places where the Count is vulnerable, finding the honest motivations for his lust and laughter.
It is a particularly difficult assignment which was met half way.
Billy Christopher Maupin (Dr. Seward) breathed fresh air and a hint of strangeness to his scenes until the character started whining and throwing himself onto Lucy’s grave like a grieving widower. His scenes with the insane and possessed Renfield, on the other hand were extremely well done.
Mr. Maupin joined briefly in several scenes with Mincks playing Renfield. Those scenes became powerful struggles of freedom and victimization. Both actors dug hard into those moments yielding exciting results.
Mr. Mincks on the whole has one of the most difficult jobs in the play. Much of the actual connection to Dracula’s is played through Rensfield’s indoctrination and escalating insanity. Mincks is also left onstage in his lair for most of the play. The actor must stay present and live his life out day by day while the play is played on other parts of the stage.
Although it was the least of his intentions, Mincks often diverted focus because he was the most interesting thing on the stage to watch. Not his issue, focus belongs to the director.
Although Mincks is an inventive, controlled, and interesting actor, here he leans on the crazy and sacrifices some honesty. Madness or insanity can’t be played. You can only play the struggle to maintain sanity.
Turner’s Mina, Johnson’s Harker and Fields’ Lucy had all the straight roles in a straight playing of a Victorian Melodrama. All three were effective if not terribly interesting. Johnson comes out best when he himself is driven mad.
Irene Kuykendall and Katie Ellis were excellent eye candy but both have skills that could have been better used.
The realistic presentation may not have been the best option. The material might have been better served if it leaned into the camp.
While this production might not have lived up to the novel’s legacy, I look forward to the rest of Quill’s excellent season ahead. Sondheim’s Assassins, Ives’ The Heir Apparent and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost are all worth looking forward to and I highly recommend each.
Quill Theatre’s Dracula runs now through October 8th at The Gottwald Theatre. You can snag tickets here.
Photos via Quill Theatre/Aaron Sutten
“There are specific stories in the play of what was happening here on December 7th to show that life was going on over here on this side of the world…”November 30, 2016
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