A Bloody Good Show: Theatre Southwest Takes on Dracula
Fog swirls underfoot and Gregorian chant reverberates. Red light bathes two blanched, debauched brides wearing dusty wedding dresses. They perch on the stairs near the Gothic windows, watching with hungry anticipation. One pets a raven on her arm; the other hisses menacingly. An old crone sheathed in garlic and entangled in a bulky crucifix silently intones a benediction. A large bed with coverlets of red and black is to our left, a blighted jail cell to our right. Stacked in the bookcase at the foot of the bed are multiple volumes of Bram Stoker's novel, all with blood-red spines emblazoned with the title. This ride is gonna be fun.
Via Theatre Southwest's deliciously creepy production of Steven Dietz's somewhat faithful 1996 stage adaptation of Stoker's masterpiece of Victorian horror, Dracula, we're in the land of demonic dreams and nebulous nightmares, fog and crashing waves, howling wolves and unquenchable blood lust.
Written in 1897 when English neo-Gothic was in full swing and tales of the rampant id gripped the imagination — Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had appeared ten years earlier, as did the real horror of Jack the Ripper's summer reign of terror — Stoker's ice-cold little novel was a critical success but no best-seller. In 1924, actor Hamilton Deane wrote a stage adaptation, turning the Count into a sophisticated man about town in tuxedo and opera cape. The public loved it. When the play transferred to Broadway in 1927 with a more American flavor imparted by co-writer John Balderston, the title role was played by unknown Hungarian Bela Lugosi, who added his own soigné Continental touch as well as a real middle European accent. The play was a smash — and would be again in its 1977 revival when Frank Langella added a hefty dose of sex appeal to one so dead — but it was the 1931 Tod Browning movie, with Lugosi, that launched the undead Carpathian into immortality.
Dietz's Dracula is more Stoker than Deane, with the novel's Victorian-laced prose adding an antique flavor to the melodrama. But he structures Act I with impressionistic flashbacks, detours that become annoying as we leap hither and yon in time. Stoker kept his dreamlike narrative in chronological order, using letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings to put us on edge.
Dietz also adds a "young" and "old" Dracula — the wizened old count, once infused with fresh new blood, morphs into a revitalized virile presence. However, the "old" version, played with theatrical gusto by John Stevens, is so damned indelible, the "young" one (Scott McWhirter) doesn't stand a chance. Stevens's eyes blare forth from a face ashen and powdered with mold, and his gnarled hands end in black fingernails. Against his red medieval robe, his cascading white hair offsets his gaunt, icon-thin body, like a Chinese mandarin gone to seed. Stevens sinks his teeth into this part with demonic relish. However, the old ghoul disappears from the play faster than if he'd been hit by a sunbeam, and McWhirter, appearing from a neat revolving casket in the castle walls, must take his place. Dietz amends the story with an abundance of erotic undertones only hinted at in Stoker's original (not for nothing is the large bed a centerpiece of the set), yet McWhirter brings no sensuousness to the bloodsucker. Even with a mane of swashbuckling locks and leather trappings, he can't compete with the dread that Stevens imparts. In the transformation, young Dracula has lost his mojo. His boudoir manner needs a transfusion.
Under the visually astute direction of Anaka Kohnitz — who also designed the set and, with Jim Allman, the play's evocative soundscape — the ensemble goes all hellfire, appropriately chewing up the scenery when not chewing on each other.
Tyrrell Woolbert, aswirl in period satin as Mina, is the smart damsel in distress, a "modern" woman who keeps the gang together against overwhelming odds. Her smoky alto would set any young swain's heart racing. Taylor Biltoft, as fiancé Harker, at first driven mad, makes a stalwart dashing hero. Autumn Woods portrays Lucy as the Victorian female libido run wild. Exuding not-quite virginal purity, she quickly falls prey to Dracula's siren song. Sam Martinez is the stolid, unconvinced man of science Dr. Steward, who loves Lucy unrequitedly, and conveniently runs the asylum next door. Kevin Bray brings a solid presence and stately authority to Van Helsing, the Dutch doctor who possesses all arcane knowledge about the powers of the night. He, of course, doesn't tell anyone about his expertise until it's almost too late. Getting some of Stoker's best lines, he tosses them off with convincing gravity. When the zombies attack, you want to be on his side.
Snacking contentedly on insects and rats, John Zipay, as mad Renfield, awaits his "master" with Shakespearean glee; his outbursts weave throughout to add disquieting gallows humor to the deadly business at hand. Julie Oliver as Mina's maid — and the superstitious old woman we meet at the beginning — doesn't have much to do, but she putters about with seriousness of purpose, much like Una O'Connor used to do in those '30s horror movies from Universal. Liz King and Shannon Grave, as the insatiable Vixens, appear like phantoms to lend a wordless air of dank danger. (You can always recognize wanton minions from hell; they're partial to leather and lace.)
Fog, gloom and doom scamper throughout Theatre Southwest. Abetted by J. Cameron Cooper's spooky lighting, it's a blood-curdling good time, never veering into camp but never straying too far from it, either. More of Stevens's deliciously dissolute Dracula would add needed chills, but the play is enriched by a full-blooded cast and Kohnitz's demon eye to raise the dead...I mean, spirit. It's a bloody good show!
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