Dracula

Brandon O’Neill and Claudine Nako in ACT Theatre’s superb, must-see production of “DRACULA,” now playing through Nov. 17.

It is more than appropriate to revisit “Dracula” as fall transforms into cold and chilly winter. ACT Theatre artistic director John Langs states that Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel established Dracula as “the most mesmerizing supernatural villain ever to swoop through the dark corners of our imagination.”

Having seen John Langs’ productions of “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Romeo And Juliet” at ACT Theatre, I knew he had a certain “flair” with classics. I was especially anxious to see what he would do with “Dracula.” What he has done, along with playwright Steven Dietz, is something extraordinary. The production takes certain cues from the novel, and then flies off in wildly imaginative and unexpected directions. Langs, Dietz, and the brilliant cast and creative team have created a wild nightmare the audience experiences while wide awake. It is completely thrilling and great fun.

Creative, theatrical surprises and innovations are everywhere. For starters, who would think to keep the basic core and gore of the story but reimagine it as a tale of female empowerment? That is just one of the important things Steven Dietz has done here.

This is not Dietz’s first encounter with “Dracula.” He wrote an earlier adaptation that has played very well at theaters across the country. Dietz could have been content to rest on his laurels. But, knowing that you should never play it safe with Dracula, he did a serious re-examination. Theatre companies would be wise to obtain Dietz’s latest Dracula adaptation for future productions. This time, Dietz discovered that Mina, a character usually dispatched to the world of the “undead” fairly quickly, was a young woman who “refused to be simply Dracula’s innocent Victorian Bride. This time Mina is not content to have the men in the play discover the plot, detect the motive, plot a course of action, and vanquish the perpetrator.” He could have added that Mina, powerfully portrayed by Khanh Doan, is not going to be dominated by the men in the play, either.

Dracula is usually pursued by a rather annoying vampire hunter named Van Helsing. In a brilliant move, Dietz erases Van Helsing from the narrative completely and, good riddance, I never missed him. This omission gives Mina equal stage time with Dracula. Here, she is Dracula’s equal, especially in terms of intelligence, wit and seductive cunning.

Dracula usually spends some time masquerading as an aristocratic, handsome society gentleman. There is nothing gentlemanly in Brandon O’Neill’s interpretation. He is too busy with shape-shifting and mind control of mere mortals to bother with a pretense of “gentlemanly” behavior. Brandon O’Neill plays Dracula as The Prince Of Darkness, arrived to reign supreme. He has the fangs, but abandons the signature “black cape and ensemble” for more warrior-like and regal costumes by Deborah Trout.

The stage crafts employed, including some extremely life-like puppetry, are marvelous. The scenic and lighting designs by Matthew Smucker and Andrew D. Smith, respectively, create an appropriately spooky ambiance. The sound design by Robertson Witmer is eerie, and the musical underscoring by cellist Rachael Beaver is perfect “mood music.”

The 90 minutes production combines the thrill and immediacy of live theatre with the frenzied fast-pace of modern cinema. Important actions are often seen in various locations, occurring simultaneously. John Langs effectively cross-cuts several scenes, as in a film.

Claudine Nako is captivating as the doomed Lucy, who experiences a rather unfortunate gap between her mundane reality and her more passionate dreams. She rejects an awkward marriage proposal from the hapless Dr. Seward (Avery Clark), who is more comfortable studying the inmates at an insane asylum. Basil Harris gives a delightfully bonkers performance as RenField, who keeps screaming about the arrival of his “Master.”

As a storm at sea brings Dracula to England, the production reaches a fever pitch. Comfortable at last in Dracula’s embrace, Lucy has fits of ecstasy. Almost simultaneously, the horrors that Jonathon Harker (Arjun Pande) previously endured in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle drive him to the brink of suicide.

The production is smart enough to balance the horrors with dark humor. When Vampire Lucy beckons Dr. Seward to come to her, he replies, “But — Lucy, you have no pulse.” Later, Dracula interrupts a blood transfusion in progress. Tossing the ineffectual Dr. Seward aside and rendering him unconscious, Dracula proceeds to enjoy every last drop from a blood bag.

There is a semi-sexual scene between Dracula and Mina. It appears that Dracula has Mina in his power. Actually, Mina has Dracula right where she wants him. Even in a blood-soaked white negligee, Miss Doan glows with self-empowerment.

If the horror genre teaches us anything, it is that you can’t keep a good supernatural super-villain down for long. Dracula is, of course, the great grand-daddy of cinema boogeymen like Michael, Jason and Freddy, who refuse to die. I certainly hope Dracula won’t be away too long. It was nice to see him again. Fortunately, this “must-see Dracula” production runs through Nov. 17.

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