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.

“Dracula” Lacks Bite

The evil vampire, Count Dracula, stalks the streets of London. He, himself, is hunted by a group of adventurers pledging to end his reign of terror. This is the story of Dracula written by Steven Dietz and based off of Bram Stoker’s classic novel and is currently playing at the UNO Theatre.

I have always considered this version of the legendary tale one of the better ones as it is based much more closely on the novel. Dietz manages to capture the most important elements of Stoker’s novel though he does eliminate two crucial characters and compresses events down to size for the sake of the play.

D. Scott Glasser’s direction is fairly solid. He makes good use of the cobblestoned three tiered stage (wonderfully designed by Robbie Jones) and had his actors well placed for the multiple simultaneous scenes that take place during the course of the show. But I did disagree with his staging. The actors presented the story in a very theatrical manner which seemed over the top at certain points which resulted in snickers and chuckles from the audience. A more realistic approach would assist in making this show a true spellbinding chiller.

Michael Judah does fine work in the title role. He has a nice intimidating physical presence and lent an air of mystery to the character as he quickly appeared and disappeared on stage. I was especially impressed with his rejuvenated Dracula as he was truly a beast. He took what he wanted, succumbed to his appetites without regret, and oozed danger. His weaker, aged version of Dracula (a stellar make-up job from Charleen Willoughby) was a bit too energetic and animated. I also thought Judah needed to be more authoritative as weaker Dracula as he is a nobleman and warrior with centuries of experience and cunning on his side.

Andrew Prescott is excellent as Professor Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula’s chief nemesis. Prescott’s marvelously powerful speaking voice was well suited to his bold, decisive characterization. He was truly a man of action and convinced me that this was somebody I would want leading me into a dangerous situation. Prescott does need to be careful not to upstage himself as he turned his back on all of the audience members in the round on a couple of occasions.

Enrique Madera made some odd choices in his interpretation of Renfield. When he opened the play, he spoke with a Received Pronunciation accent and had utterly flawless diction. When he transitioned into the Renfield of the story he fell into a Cockney accent and his diction vanished. At certain points he also seemed to imbue the character with some effeminate qualities which I didn’t think worked very well. Madera also didn’t seem to quite get Renfield’s true nature, though he was on the right track. Renfield is a man of massive extremes. When he is sane, he is completely calm and controlled. When he goes through a psychotic fit, it is savagely violent and he is capable of making those changes on the turn of a dime. Madera was making those changes but they need to be sharper and more pronounced. I also thought his choice to consistently giggle was a little too clichéd.

Garrett Garniss’ portrayal of Dr. Seward was a superior work of storytelling. His rich voice captured all of the subtle nuances needed for the character. I could feel his pain when he lost Lucy, his confusion and irritation with Van Helsing who would not reveal the whole truth of the situation, his anger and disgust at what needs to be done with Lucy, and his courage and determination when he decides to accept the burden placed upon him. It was truly fine workmanship.

The only flaw in Mike Burns’ Jonathan Harker was its theatricality. Toned down a few notches, it is a gripping performance. Burns did good work in portraying Harker as the hungry new solicitor determined to do good by Dracula as his leasing agent. Most impressive was his turn as a nearly catatonic patient after the horrors he experiences at Castle Dracula.

I thought Sarah Nickolaisen made for a very sweet Lucy Westenra. She could be playful as when she was teasing Mina, empathetic when she rejected Seward’s marriage proposal, and I was chilled when she transformed into the eerie and bestial Bloofer Lady. She does need to be certain to overenunciate when she has the fangs so she can be understood.

Likewise, I thought Jordyn Petersen was loyal and steadfast as Mina Murray, but she also needs to watch her diction as her dialogue was mushy at points during the play.

Charleen Willoughby’s costumes were perfect for the gothic tale. Aaron David Wrigley’s sound was an ideal match to the mood of the story. Adam VanOsdel’s special effects could not be improved upon. Audrey Wardian’s lighting was well suited, but was a bit too dim and shadowy. For a large portion of the play, I had difficulty seeing the actors and could not read their reactions and expressions.

The play did have some group issues as well. The theatre is a black box so the actors need to really belt out their lines to be heard. Accents were a mixed bag and sometimes were dropped and changed. The pace of the show also needed to be greatly picked up and scenes of violence need to be tighter and cleaner. Still, I see untapped potential in this show. As this was the first of two preview performances, there is still time for adjustments to be made to allow the show to reach the heights I believe it can reach.

Dracula plays at the UNO Theatre in the Weber Fine Arts Building through October 10. Performances are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm. Tickets cost $16, but UNO students get one free ticket. Reservations can be made at 402-554-PLAY or their website at www.unomaha.edu/unotheatre. Dracula is a horror story and is recommended for mature audiences.