Tepid, Tiresome Tale Dooms Dracula

When Dr. Seward’s daughter, Lucy, begins exhibiting the same symptoms that preceded the death of her friend, Mina, Dr. Seward calls in his old friend, Professor Van Helsing for help.  Van Helsing suspects the work of a vampire and it is up to the two doctors and Lucy’s fiancée, Jonathan Harker, to discover the vampire and save Lucy from certain doom.  This is the plot of Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker and currently playing at the Chanticleer Theater.

This is, quite possibly, the dullest script I have ever seen produced on a metro area stage.  Even by the standards of the year this play was written, 1924, it isn’t scary.  It’s a sitting room melodrama and that is not suited to a gothic tale like Dracula.  Aside from the lack of scares, Deane and Balderston have done the cast and audience no favors by leaping straight into the action with no sense of build and eliminating 3 crucial characters from the story though the presence of one, Mina Murray, is felt throughout the play.  The tension is nearly non-existent and the resolution is anti-climactic.

I tip my hat to Daena Schweiger and her group of actors for a valiant effort in trying to do something with this script, but it hates them with a passion and practically defies them to do anything with it.  It truly is a pity as Ms Schweiger’s direction is of very good quality.  The show is well staged, well paced, and Ms Schweiger has guided her actors to mostly very good to excellent performances.

Andy Niess shone in the role of Renfield, Dracula’s insane servant.  Arguably the most well developed character in the play, the script still tries to hamstring the actor by making Renfield the clichéd slavering lackey.  Niess turns the tables on the script with a deep, multilayered performance.  He demonstrates great understanding of Renfield’s nature by leaping from sane to insane and back again at a moment’s notice.  Sometimes even within the same sentence.  When he laughs it is with purpose and it is sinister and scary.  When he begs to be restrained and sent away to protect Lucy, he is strangely sympathetic.  The only flaw in Niess’ performance is that he needs to commit more fully when Renfield physically attacks  others.  He was obviously holding back during those moments of violence.

Amanda Vyhnalek does remarkable work with the relatively one note character of Lucy Seward.  Ostensibly, she is the stereotypical damsel in distress and Dracula has already begun attacking her as the play opens.  Ms Vyhnalek communicates Lucy’s fear and sickliness well with a weary, fearful delivery and stooped body posture.  She truly gets her moment to shine when her vampiric nature begins to dominate her.  She is sultry and coy as she tries to pry the group’s plans for Dracula out of Jonathan.  Ms Vyhnalek’s diction is some of the best I’ve heard out of a local performer and she is also capable of a bloodcurdling scream guaranteed to send chills down one’s spine.

Mark Reid is pretty effective in the role of Professor Van Helsing.   I thought his soft spoken approach to Van Helsing worked especially well as it made the character’s intelligence and strength of will more pronounced.  This Van Helsing is clearly a step ahead of everyone else intellectually and it is that crucial step that makes one believe that he will defeat the evil Count.  Reid does need to be careful with his accent as it seemed to come and go and sometimes sounded more British than Dutch.

Adam Haverman does good work with his interpretation of Jonathan Harker.  Haverman has a nice, natural delivery style well suited to the earnest Harker.  He is brave and he is determined.  Haverman also reacts well to others.  A sterling example of this talent is his determination not to reveal the heroes’ pursuit of Count Dracula to Lucy despite his body language clearly indicating he wants nothing more than to do just that.

Alfred Salanitro is fairly solid in the role of Dr. Seward.  I liked the clinical air he brought to the psychiatrist as it made it very believable that this man would be very logical and not open to the idea of a supernatural beast hunting his daughter.  However, I did think he overused it a bit as, even after he accepted the reality of a vampire, he still seemed very clinical towards Lucy’s plight and I did not sense a great deal of concern for his daughter’s well-being.  Salanitro also needs to step up his volume.

Matthew Kelehan seems a bit out of his element in the title role.  He lacked the regal presence needed for the Count and he had difficulty with Dracula’s Romanian accent.  Kelehan’s interpretation also needs to be nuanced as it came off a bit stiff and wooden.

The technical pieces of the show were some of its strongest assets.  Particularly impressive was Michael Taylor Stewart’s set, the imposing stone edifice of Purley Sanitorium and Dave Podendorf’s sound design with its intense bass beats, creepy music, and haunting cries being the perfect support for a gothic story.

I’ve long said that bad writing will sink good acting each and every time and this particular story seems to support that belief.  The cast deserves much better than what this play gives them, but they certainly do give their all to the tale.

Dracula plays at the Chanticleer Theater through November 1.  Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  An additional 10:30pm performance will be given on October 30.  Tickets cost $20 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students.  For reservations, contact the Chanticleer at 712-323-9955.  The Chanticleer is located at 830 Franklin Ave in Council Bluffs, IA.  Dracula is a horror show and parental discretion is advised.

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