HIGH BLOOD COUNT

There's not a bat in sight in the world premiäre of Arizona Theatre Company's compelling new version of Dracula, currently stalking Herberger Theater Center. But bats are about the only thing missing from Steven Dietz's faithful rendition of Bram Stoker's 1897 tale of horror.

ATC commissioned Dietz, author of this year's memorable Lonely Planet, to resuscitate this grisly fable, and he has approached it with such a fresh appetite, it seems reimagined.

For sheer spectacle, David Ira Goldstein's production rivals The Phantom of the Opera for the season's most sumptuous scenic feast. Billowing mist blankets the stage whenever the legendary leech appears, amid plentiful thunder and lightning. Transylvanian wolves howl in the distance, while a gigantic full moon scars the velvet depths of the night sky. Flickering lanterns lead the way into graveyards, where gruesome business awaits.

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Dracula became popular in this country when Bela Lugosi opened on Broadway in 1927, engendering a thirst for blood that remains unquenched nearly 70 years later. For some time now, stage versions of this gothic tale have spoofed the story with tongue in cheek, because it is much easier to arouse smirks from sophisticated audiences than to captivate them with terror.

Dietz's version plays it dead straight. Although there are a couple of laughs in the production, they are never at the expense of the horror. The exaggerations are those of a 19th-century sensibility, and a society in which effusive manners are the currency and repressed passions relish the unleashing of the forbidden. Watching this Dracula, we must enter a Victorian world that views science, superstition and morality as forces battling for the minds and souls of humankind. Belief in those values, however, has long given way in our culture to ethical uncertainty, and therein lies a problem for the modern audience. How can we take seriously the absolute certainties that dictate the propriety of human behavior?

Dietz cleverly introduces that intensely structured universe by means of a prologue. Seated alone at a table is an effete man dressed in formal evening wear. A waiter approaches, proffering a bottle of dark red wine. As he sips, the elegant man addresses the audience with the professional enthusiasm of a tour guide. "We are all of us invented," he tells us, "but I actually know my maker." He turns a framed photograph on the table toward us, and announces with pride: "Bram Stoker!"

He reveals that his name is Renfield, and that he himself was invented as a character in the classic novel we are about to see. "Our young Bram entered the theatrical profession in as low and base a manner as one possibly can--as a critic." With this witticism, we are transported to the London of Oscar Wilde, and, laughing comfortably, we are thoroughly ill-prepared for the waiter to remove the silver cover from the platter and reveal the carcass of a rat. Renfield snatches the rodent to his mouth, and is transformed into a raving lunatic before our eyes. As his formal clothes are stripped from him, he is dragged by attendants to the clammy confines of a cell in Dr. Seward's lunatic asylum. It is a cunning device that thrusts us headlong into a performance of blood and gore unseen since the days of the Grand Guignol.

The challenge Dietz faces in trying to be faithful to his antiquated source is that we are all familiar with the story from countless earlier incarnations. Aren't we? Actually, there is a great deal we don't know, either because we have been misdirected all these years by Hollywood or because we've forgotten all the unforeseen turns of this fiendishly intricate plot. In any case, Dietz has many surprises to make the audience titter nervously in anticipation of the next plot twist.

Ultimately, every ominous element is here: the crucifix and garlic as antidotes to the blood-hungry vampire, the mirror empty of an image, the wooden stake that must be driven into the palpitating heart before the coming of the dawn. Familiar as they are, these touchstones continue to fascinate. The audience clutches at each remembered clich‚ as a fortress against the unexpected. Among the more felicitous dramaturgical devices is the flashback that occurs from the diary of Harker, the first to fall victim to the Count's evil spell. As Harker's fianc‚e, Mina, reads of his descent into madness, the Count's castle looms up from the mists to depict in three dimensions the young man's dreadful encounters with his ancient host.

Of course, our credulity has its limits, and contemporary fashion leaves us longing for quicker solutions in the second act, as the baroque developments evolve ever so tediously. Thrilling as it is to be transported to a previous era, it begins to feel like we're reliving every nook and cranny of the Victorian epoch. Dramaturgy has progressed in the past hundred years, but Dietz is prisoner to his faithful conceit.

The settings by Bill Forrester amaze, although they occasionally roll noisily off. The costumes by David Kay Mickelsen are so perfect, we understand the philosophy of the age from every swish of the cape. The lighting by Don Darnutzer shifts subtly or dramatically as needed.

But the triumph of the technical production is the astonishing score by Roberta Carlson, which blends so well with Jeff Ladman's eerie sound effects that a world of terror is evoked beneath our consciousness.

David Pichette is giving what is simply the best performance of the season as Renfield. His eyes darting like hummingbirds from his sockets, his wild hair astray, his bony chest displayed, he embodies madness. He makes one almost understand why Renfield finds those insects so delicious. Pichette's is an appalling performance you won't soon forget. Benjamin Livingston brings a vulnerable virility to the role of Dr. Seward that makes him the perfect foil for the fiend. Peter Silbert sputters a bit too much as the raisonneur Van Helsing, who voices the central theme of the work, but the writing may be partly to blame. Suzanne Bouchard and Britt Sady enliven their ing‚nues with strength and intelligence, endowing these frail maidens with a touch of feminism that helps to puncture the masculine egos.

Patrick Page is a Dracula who measures up to myth. Tall and lithe as a young man rejuvenated by his bloody conquests, he is a commanding, sensual master of evil. His aquiline features sneer at the ordinary, and the seductive swirl of his cape is like the pass of a matador. In the flashback scenes, he is an ancient cohort of Attila. Transformed by miraculous makeup, he becomes a scabrous ghoul, with talons, fangs and a mane that reminds us of the ghastly fact that hair and nails continue to grow after we are dead. His performance is so riveting that you will believe without hesitation that it is the otherworldly power of the vampire that causes a wine glass to be suspended midair as he replenishes it from the bottle.

One might legitimately quarrel that in this age of AIDS, it is somewhat insensitive to celebrate a thriller so centered on blood, when it eschews any meaning with a redeeming social consequence. Can we any longer afford a theatre that is only entertainment? With escapism rampant in films and television, shouldn't we expect a higher level of engagement from the theatre? Perhaps. But the nightmares of childhood persist beneath the surface of our smug rationality, and here is an undying tale that you can really sink your teeth into. It may not be nourishing, but it is delicious.

Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and Jules Feiffer. He is now a full professor of theatre at Arizona State University.

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