Powerful and alluring vampire bites two unsuspecting young Victorian women who in turn come under his spell. The one gal who has had the audacity of flirting with no less than three suitors before making up her mind to let the bloodsucking count seduce her, gets a fatal stake to the heart. The other woman, more chaste in her ways and committed to just one man, is spared her life, sheds her vampire transformation and lives happy every after.
Or so goes the gist more or less of Bram Stoker’s time-honored Dracula. Classic or not, it seems like an unusual choice for the female-centric, girl power programming of Mildred’s Umbrella. But then this isn’t your grandparent’s Dracula.
Originally produced by the company back in 2004, Mac Wellman’s Dracula by the wonderfully strange, eclectic and award-winning playwright Mac Wellman is touted here as a feminist entry into the vampire tale. We’re told this telling takes the focus off the Count and lands it squarely on the female victims, who in this version aren’t such victims after all. Instead our Vampiresses use their new undeadness to break free from the sexual repression of the time and have a have a bawdy time of it all.
Cue the dark humor, sexual innuendo, the singing and dancing. Wait, what? There’s singing and dancing too? Hold onto your garlic garlands folks, this one’s gonna be a bloody different kind of ride.
Truth in advertising, or the lack of it more particularly, does not I’m afraid skip over the theatrical arts. Mildred’s Umbrella may tout this Dracula as lifting the veil of misogyny that blanketed Stoker’s tale, but in watching the show, it becomes quickly apparent that this is more wishful promotional fairy dust than the rare meat of the play.
Wellman’s Dracula follows the original Stoker tale in a Cliff’s Notes kind of fashion while staying true to the Victorian language. Solicitor Johnathan visits the Count’s castle in Transylvania in order to shore up the business transaction of acquiring a new England-based home for Dracula.. While at the castle, Jonathan is bitten and left a raving insect-eating lunatic/slave to his new undead master. Brought to an asylum back in London run by Jack Seward, Jonathan’s wife Mina is crushed to learn of his fate. Meanwhile Mina’s friend Lucy is busy stringing along three suitors and regaling Mina with her flirtations. Things begin to go sideways for the women when Seward calls in his old professor Van Helsing to help with the seemingly untreatable Jonathan. Not limited to the confines of traditional psychiatric diagnosis, Van Helsing surmises that it was a vampire bite that landed Jonathan in this state and warns them all that Dracula is on his way to England. The women get bitten, the men freak out, and while the ending is most assuredly a departure from the Stoker original, it’s pretty much business as usual in the actual plot trajectory. In other words – if you’ve come thinking that the chicks are going to rule the story or get the last laugh somehow, you’d be mistaken.
What does make this different is a healthy combination of Wellman’s linguistically delicious and often campy dialogue/characterization. But the real point of departure comes with Director Jennifer Decker’s inclusion of Wellman’s poetry (apparently picked from companion poems that Wellman wrote for the play) set to music and choreographer Jennifer Woods’ fleeting dance numbers that last only a minute or so.
With this combination of dialogue, music and dance, no one raises the roof like the black leather, tight-fitting, double breasted, coat done up to the neck-wearing Van Helsing (a finely taut and hysterically dead serious Ron Reeder). With his mashable Dutch/something else vaguely Eastern European accent he spews Wellman’s invented words (Jonathan, who has taken to eating flies, spiders, and even a sparrow, he dubs a ‘zooaphagus’, or one that eats others) and delivers a whirlwind song and dance explanation of what a “wampire” is. Van Helsing is the crux of the dark humor in this production and Reeder plays it to perfection.
But truly the reason to come to this show is John Dunn’s Jonathan. Whether in full capacity of his oddball stream of consciousness senses on the way to the castle or post bite once he is a spitting, sputtering, twitching, squirming bundle of madness, Dunn steals the spotlight and then some. For the majority of this one and a half hour play, Jonathan must vomit up Wellman’s elegant words (You’re knowledge is as full of holes as the cheese in your homeland, Jonathan spits at Van Helsing) while behaving as if he’s undergoing shock therapy combined with an out of control acid trip. By the time his last pseudo song and dance number arrives late in the play (to a chorus of, “The hair is growing into my head”) we are fully mesmerized by the physicality of the performance and Dunn’s ability not only to endure, but to continue to intrigue with a mixture of perfectly calibrated horror and utterly lofty camp.
But what of the women, isn’t that who we’re supposed to be focussing on in this show? While Christie Guidry (a chaste and later aggressive undead Mina) and Patricia Duran (an amusingly self centered, shrill and sexually aggressive pre and post bite Lucy) do fine jobs, its fairly easy to gloss over them in this script as nothing more than female props to the more interesting parts of the play. Whatever feminist intentions Decker saw in these roles, the audience doesn’t see it. Instead what we get is Lucy, a woman so shallow that she shrugs off the love of three decent men (Reeder’s Van Helsing, Seward played with slow burn sarcasm by Ryan Kelly and the cowboy American Quincy earnestly delivered by Blake Weir) for the bad boy Vampire who ruins her. Or we get Mina who turns “bad” in spite of a good heart. Yes their sexuality is played up – especially Lucy’s in a somewhat tiresomely carnal song and dance pelvic thrust number featuring the suggestive words “Bunka Bunka” with Seward’s Scottish assistant Simmons (a roguishly charming Jason Duga). But one raunchy scene, a feminist manifesto make.
More problematic is Decker’s treatment of the three Vampirette women that serve Dracula (a restrained Phillip Hays). Clad in black corsets over white bloomers finished off with black fishnets and boots, the three Vamps (Sarah Jo Dunstan, Katrina Ellsworth and Arianna Bermudez) cattily cackle and do Dracula’s bidding. These are the stereotypical fallen women and nowhere does Wellman or Decker make any attempts to give them voice or meaning beyond servitude. They are also the weak link when it comes to the musical/dance portions of the play. Middling singer and dancers at best and not equipped with the campy fun factor to have that deficit dismissed, the trio deliver several amateurish efforts that make the play feel under rehearsed in moments.
Perhaps if Wellman’s Dracula was shown by a different company, one not espousing a positive female bent in their programming, I would have been more forgiving of the treatment. This is after all, a linguistically intelligent and campy fun look at the famous horror story. As dubious as we might have been learning that there was to be song and dance layered into the play’s batter, Decker and her team do a mostly spiffy job using Wellman’s poems to musically add to the show’s oddness. Additionally a gothic two story set by Lee O. Barker allows Decker plenty of room to populate the stage in interesting ways and keep us visually stimulated.
As to what Wellman was trying to say about the Dracula myth with his strange satire? Well he certainly takes the metaphoric bite out of the creepy tale by creating characters that are all more or less amusingly mad in their own way. Whether sexually overdriven, sulking with self-pity or obsessed by the hunt, these characters are all slave to a personal master that doesn’t need to be undead to hold all the cards. And perhaps that’s the point of it all, to show us that by thinking we are chasing monsters, the joke is on us as the real monster lies within. Mwa ha ha ha, right?
Mac Wellman’s Dracula continues through October 31 at the Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at mildredsumbrella.com or call 832-463-0409. Pay-what-you-can to $20.