Stage

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

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.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover