Maryland Ensemble Theatre trumpets its production of Dracula, by the estimable Stephen Dietz (Lonely Planet, Still Life with Iris, a bunch of other stuff), as being “rich with both humor and horror.” It is not. It is instead a bland retelling of the original Stoker story, slenderized and with scenes reshuffled, and with some funny lines given to Renfield (Jeff Keilholtz). Regrettably, the production by and large lives up to the script.
You know this plot, probably. Jonathan Harker (Brian Irons) travels from England to Transylvania to close the sale of an English manor to the aged Count Dracula (Reiner Prochaska). Although the simple peasants have their superstitions about Transylvania in general and the Castle Dracula in particular, Harker writes to his fiancée Mina (Vanessa Strickland), he has no fears himself and looks forward to spending some face time with the Count. He gets it, and things go badly for him; he is nearly consumed by the Draculettes (Alexandra Guyker, Caitlyn Joy, and Devin Gather), who settle for a bagful of babies instead.
In the meantime, Mina suspects something is up when a couple weeks go by without hearing from Harker, but she is temporarily distracted by the romantic adventures of her friend Lucy (Tracy Haupt), who is being pursued by three men. Only one of these fellows appears on stage – Seward (Jim Page), the morose keeper of the local insane asylum. Renfield is one of Seward’s customers – the one who eats rats and spiders and calls out for his master. Unbeknownst to Seward, it seems as though Lucy has a fourth suitor – an undead one, who invades her dreams and sucks her blood. This, of course, is Dracula, who has made it to England, leaving a shipful of dead sailors (represented by Mark Nichols as their dead Captain) in their wake. Seward, knowing himself to be in over his head, calls upon his old teacher, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Bill Stitely), who is on the very cutting edge of late 19th-century science, for help. And then things get worse.
This is difficult stuff to do now, but when a producer can bring it off – such as in the 1979 film (using a different script), with Frank Langella as Dracula and Sir Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing – it is spectacular. This production, alas, is not spectacular. Keilholtz is; Dietz gives him an amusing prologue and an equally funny epilogue and Keilholtz gets every lip-smacking minute of them. Dietz also gives him some dialogue in the modern tongue, which Keilholtz uses with great comic impact against the highblown 19th-century language which Dietz has imported from the Stoker novel to make up the rest of the characters’ speech.
The rest of the cast, saddled mostly with Stoker’s original language, fare less well. Strickland and Haupt are adequate in their one-dimensional roles. Page as Seward has a funny scene in which he proposes to Lucy, but when she does not respond immediately talks himself down to “friend” status. Thereafter, however, he settles into a single note of whiny moroseness. This, to be fair, may be all the text gives him, but it grows monotonous after a while. Irons’ Harker shows a similarly constricted emotional range, consisting principally of fear and rage. As with Seward, we get who he is immediately, but spend the rest of the play wishing he was somebody else.
But it is Stitely as Van Helsing and Prochaska in the title role who constitute the night’s biggest disappointment. It is the conflict between the two which drives Stoker’s novel, and perforce Dietz’s script. Van Helsing represents the age’s epitome of both faith and science; if he prevails, the world is benign and open to us, and the human race will prevail as well. Dracula represents darkness, magic, and madness; if he prevails the world is beyond our understanding, much less our control. These are titanic, iconic figures, and the clash between them must similarly be titanic. We must know the stakes, and sweat for Van Helsing to win.
Stitely’s Van Helsing and Prochaska’s Dracula, though, are pretty much duds. Stitely struggled with his Dutch accent and fought his lines for most of the night I saw, frequently coming up with words that had never been uttered before in the English language, or any other. He will probably be better later in the production, but he was not ready on opening night. Dracula is not a huge role but his effect must be immediate and electric. We must know that we are in the presence of a preternatural being, with protean powers. Prochaska’s Dracula comes off as a frat boy, made up to look, perhaps, like Oscar Wilde. He has none of the sense of danger or sexual magnetism that Dracula must exude. Dracula must be a threat to the moral order; Prochaska makes him seem like an annoyance.
The production is also afflicted with numerous technical difficulties. Like most versions of Dracula, Dietz’s script calls for many special effects. These are best done by a company with the resources to pull them off, but MET is an old-school institution, and labors to achieve them. MET does not have a curtain, and does not have set-moving machinery, and so the frequent set changes are done before us, in the half-light, mostly by the actors. The sound (Tom Majarov) is dreadful; with scary noises disintegrating suddenly in mid-howl, much like in a 1990s video game. The Draculettes double as nurses in Dr. Seward’s asylum but they do not have time to change costumes or makeup, which means that the asylum is staffed by chalk-pale, barefoot women with huge circles around their eyes – hardly an inducement to mental health.
Speaking of makeup, Julie Herber’s design could use a bit more subtlety and forethought; when Mina, for example, is showing the effects of a few encounters with Dracula it appears as though her face has been dusted with flour, but her arms and hands are reassuringly tan. The script stresses that Dracula was an old man in Transylvania but has been transformed into a young and virile fellow once he comes to England. The production’s concession to the text is to give Prochaska a blonde wig during his Transylvania scene, and to have him talk in a harsh whisper, a lá Brando’s Godfather.
I am sorry to have to say these bad things about this production; the folks at MET seem like nice people, and judging from our reviews of their previous productions they have done some fine work in the past. But their reach here seems to exceed their grasp by a considerable margin.
But if we are left wondering why MET tried to produce this play, the greater question is why Dietz tried to write it. His script gives us nothing which the more artful Stoker novel misses. And yet there is much which an inventive writer could mine out of the story. Among the bogeymen on the fringes of human consciousness, Dracula stands alone. Frankenstein, Godzilla, and werewolves inhabit our nightmares; Dracula is the gleaming demon of our dreams. The other monsters look out at us with animal rapaciousness and subhuman intellect. Dracula fixes us with a cool gaze. He is older than us, more powerful, profoundly more intelligent. His capacity to love exceeds ours. He loves with the force of gravity. He is sex; he is religion (who else do you invites us to drink His blood, and thus live forever?); he is mystery. There is a powerful play to be written about this creature. But this ain’t it, Jack.
By Stephen Dietz
Directed by Tad James
Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor