In the world of theater, the maxim "less is more" can be either the kiss of death or a life-affirming embrace. In a fascinating production of Mac Wellman's idiosyncratic adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company takes us into its arms and smothers us with love of theater.
A flashlight held under the chin, a flickering chandelier, a blood-red column, three simple wooden chairs and a table (also blood-red), the use of shrieking seagulls to create the sound of demonic laughter, and a gothic arch-shaped doorway upstage -- these are all that's necessary to set a dreadful mood when everything else, especially the performers, are so in sync with Wellman's swirling, dreamy text.
Even though he's one of America's most prolific, experimental and thought-provoking playwrights, Wellman isn't widely known outside the fringes of off-off-Broadway, where his distinctive, edgy work (Sincerity Forever, 7 Blowjobs) has won theater awards, devoted audiences and cult status. His 1987 adaptation of Stoker's Victorian novel, about the Carpathian Count from Transylvania who invades a cozy English town, is perhaps his most accessible play. And all the trademark Wellman-esque touches are here.
The playwright loves words, their meanings, the way they ring in the air, the way they can be strung together almost randomly and sound as natural as conversation. When a character can't express himself fully, he'll make up a word -- as professor Van Helsing does when trying to describe Dracula as a life-draining force. He calls him "zoophagous." Words and thoughts tumble out freeform and unedited. The characters often say too much about what's on their minds.
In this revisionist reworking, Wellman tries to pursue what lies at the book's core. To that end, he weaves Stoker's basic plot with the unspoken sexual repression lurking underneath it, creating a complex, hypnotic pattern. The story combines the staid Victorian atmosphere with erotic situations that are decidedly postmodern, even anachronistic. What more striking image of a repressed society aching to be liberated than the living undead? The closer they get to bloodless damnation, the more fiercely alive the characters in Stoker and Wellman become. Wellman's mixing and matching of the old and the new is just the deconstruction the story needs -- and it works brilliantly. The camp aspect, mercifully, is tamped down, and the ripe Victorian Gothic poetry allowed to shine.
Everything's of a piece in Wellman's worldview, especially the amazing ensemble cast, which throws itself into the creepy goings-on with panache and conviction. Greg Dean, with long, straight hair, frock coat and extended fingernails on spider-leg hands, makes an imperious Count. "My heart is not attuned to mirth," he intones with middle-Euro weariness. He cuts such an imposing figure of "otherness" that he can stand still and command the stage.
John Harvey gives a tour-de-force performance as Jonathan Harker, Dracula's first victim, whose mind unravels under increasing devilish possession. With wild hair and staring eyes, he heartbreakingly wails the anthem "There Is Hair Growing into My Head," powerless to stop the madness overtaking him.
With kewpie-doll curls and rouged cheeks, Patricia Duran's Act I Lucy is all girlish giggles and sentimentality as she gleefully rebuffs the advances of her three suitors, wanting something from them that she can't quite figure out. But Act II finds her a wanton harpy -- the Count's insidious influence has had its way with her. It's a transformation to be seen.
As Van Helsing, Alan Hall seems to relish his character's contradictions. The "alienist" specialist is gruff and comic, a man of science and a man of his times. "I employ scientific method and hope for the best," the character jokes in earnest. He confounds the other characters with his thick pronunciation of "wum-peer," or vampire.
Christie Guidry, as Mina, Lucy's best confidante and Harker's wife, succumbs to Dracula's power almost willingly. She ends up snorting chloral hydrate out of her handkerchief in a pathetic attempt to forget what she has become. Though married, Mina is a mirror image Lucy, and Guidry plays the repressed maiden to perfection. And as the insane-asylum assistant, Stephen Foulard steps right out of an English musical when he sings his explicitly ribald ditty about Mad Sally and what we all crave: "bonkers, bonker, bonk."
Dracula's brides (Karen Schlag, Shondra Marie, Jennifer Decker) are not wispy wraiths but real-life Victorian naughty postcards in corsets and bloomers who stomp about the stage in combat boots. At times, they vocalize wordlessly in unworldly tones. Other times, they sing in harmony, asking "Who Do You Suppose Is Going to Feed Him?" as they surround the next hapless victim.
There's much to savor in this production: John Watt's synthesized background score, Greg Dean's atmospheric sound design and the absolute right-on direction by a busy Greg Dean. Above all, though, it's the golden, hallucinogenic words of Mac Wellman that bring Dracula to swooping life. It's a tasty bite of theater you won't soon forget.