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Theatre Southwest Transforms Into the Land of Howling Wolves and Blood Lust With Dracula

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The set-up: We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, we may not even be in Houston. We're in the land of demonic dreams and nebulous nightmares, of fog and crashing waves, of howling wolves and unquenchable blood lust, via Theatre Southwest's deliciously creepy production of Steven Dietz's somewhat-faithful, somewhat-successful 1996 stage adaptation of Bram Stoker's masterpiece of Victorian horror, Dracula.

The execution: Even before you enter the intimate theater on Clarkcrest, there's a languid chill in the air, for the small lobby has been deftly appointed in all things Transylvanian: bones, bats, black crepe, candelabra. The mood is set. We're in for some chills.

Inside the theater, fog swirls underfoot and Gregorian chant reverberates. Red light bathes two blanched, debauched brides wearing tattered dusty wedding dresses. They perch on the stairs near the Gothic windows, watching us 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 Stoker's novel, all with blood-red spines emblazoned with the title. This ride is gonna be fun.

Written in 1897 when the 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. Stoker, then stage manager for Henry Irving, England's most acclaimed actor, adapted his book as a possible vehicle for the "great Shakespearean" but playing a pagan vampire left Irving cold and he passed on it.

In 1924, actor Hamilton Deane, who had also been in Irving's company, wrote his own adaptation, turning the count into a sophisticated man-about-town in tuxedo and opera cape. This time, the public clamored for 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 took the movies to push the undead Romanian count into immortality.

F.W. Murnau's haunting silent version, Nosferatu (1922), is a ghoul's delight because of its German expressionistic design and over-the-top feral Count "Orlok" of Max Schreck, designed with bat ears, rat teeth, and skeletal paws. He certainly stands out in a crowd, and you wonder why anyone he meets would doubt his sinister purpose and not run screaming from the room.

Tod Browning's classic (1931), taken from Deane and Balderston, is more believable, as Lugosi's debonair lounge lizard mesmerizes with aristocratic nobless oblige, using searing pinspot eyes to impale the helpless mortals. In one of the film's most resonant images,

Lugosi greets Harker on the epic staircase in his brooding castle, with its armadillos prowling about the shadows and mile-high arched windows caked with grime, as he walks through gigantic cobwebs without so much as disturbing them. The entire film has the jump-cut fluidity of a very powerful dream. Dwight Frye's psychotic Renfield, gobbling flies and spiders like tasty hors d'oeuvres, is a tour de force of indelible madness.

Dietz' Dracula is a combo of book and play, more book actually, using some Victorian-laced dialogue verbatim from Stoker that adds a nice antique period flavor to the melodrama. But he structures Act I with flashbacks, which may have the tug and feel of nightmarish vignettes as we leap hither and yon in time, but the detours become more annoying than helpful. Stoker kept his dreamlike narrative in chronological order, using letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings to keep us constantly on edge as the horror mounts. Just get on with it.

Also he's added 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, poor Scott McWhirter, the young one, doesn't stand a chance.

Stevens's eyes blare forth from a face ashen and powdered with mold, 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. Even with a mane of swashbuckling locks and leather trappings, McWhirter can't compare to the dread that Stevens imparts. However, the old ghoul disappears from the play faster than hit by a sunbeam, and McWhirter, appearing from a neat revolving casket in the castle walls, must fill his shoes. I don't envy him.

Dietz fills the play 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. 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 Jum Allman, the play's evocative soundscape -- the ensemble goes all hell-bent, 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 in overwhelming odds. Her smoky alto would set any young swain's heart racing. Taylor Biltoft, later to be spelled by Bryan Maynard, as her fiancée Harker, at first driven mad inside Castle Dracula, makes a stalwart dashing hero.

Autumn Woods portrays Lucy as the Victorian female libido run wild, with three suitors and body a-tingle to experience life. 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 knows the arcane knowledge about the unquenchable powers of the night. He, of course, doesn't tell anyone about his expertise until it's almost too late. Van Helsing gets some of Stoker's best lines, like " I have learned not to belittle anyone's beliefs - no matter how strange - for it is not the ordinary things which close our minds - but the extraordinary things, those mysteries on the fringe of our thinking." Bray tosses these off with convincing gravity. When the zombies attack, you want to be on his side.

Snacking merrily on insects and rats, John Zipay, as mad Renfield, awaits his "master" with Shakespearean glee. His mighty outbursts of contrition, confession, and abject servility weave throughout to add disquieting gallows humor to the bloody business of dispatching the living dead.

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 hissing Vixens, those hungry brides longing to taste Harker's neck, appear like phantoms within scenes and lend a wordless air of dank danger. (You can always tell wanton minions from hell, they're partial to leather and lace.)

The verdict: It's fog, gloom, and doom now playing at Theatre Southwest. J. Cameron Cooper's lighting is nicely spooky. It's also a blood-curdling good time, never veering into camp, but never straying too far from it either. More of Stevens's deliciously dissolute old Dracula would add more chills, but the play is enriched by a full-blooded cast and Kohnitz's demon eye to raise the dead...I mean, spirit. Do you mind if I say, It's a bloody good show!

The original demon bloodsucker hypnotizes through June 22 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at theatresouthwest.com or call 713-861-9505. $15-$17.

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