At the Mercury Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – There are two ways to adapt that antique horror story “Dracula” into a viable stage production. One way is to ignore the fact that the tale is silly and play it as straight as possible, trying to carve out an evening of suspense and frights from the outdated premise. The other is to recognize it for the nonsense it is and treat the script as a broad comedy clever enough to induce chuckles from an indulgent modern audience.
Sean Graney (adaptor and director) and Timothy Griffin (writer), both flying the colors of the normally estimable Hypocrites company, have tried both angles in their new version of the horror story and flopped in both. A few legitimately humorous moments late in the play suggest that the venture may have had some success as a comedy of the Mel Brooks-Charles Ludlum school, but they tantalize without satisfying.
“Dracula” originated in modern times as a popular English novel published by Bram Stoker in England in 1897. A Broadway dramatization in 1927 had some success but the narrative really took off with a motion picture version starring Bela Lugosi in 1931. In one format or another, the world knows that Count Dracula is a vampire from the spooky country of Transylvania, a cunning monster who is immortal as long as he can suck the nourishing blood of living victims and not get caught in the daylight or looking in a mirror. Things get too hot for him in Transylvania so he relocates to London to wreak his havoc.
The topic of vampirism has taken a recent hold on the public imagination with the “Twilight” novels and movies. So the Hypocrites brain trust apparently figured the market was open to a fresh version, unveiled in time for the Halloween season at the Mercury.
What’s wrong with the Mercury adaptation? For openers the script is lumbered with intolerably stilted language. The acting, with a few exceptions, is woeful, but that may be partly the fault of the leaden script. Or perhaps all that frenzied overacting was intentional. If so it was a grievous miscalculation. The actor playing Dracula delivers all his lines at a manic shout that disarms any sinister, scary, or sexy qualities. The directing is all over the place, arch and obvious and occasionally incoherent. The special effects lean on portentous sound effects like sinister thunder and lightning to punctuate equally portentous bits of dialogue.
The audience is put on alert in the playbill that this will be a rough and tumble staging by citing Jon Beal for his “Violence and blood/gore design.” And indeed there is plenty of grand guignol on stage, the characters awash in stage blood that inspired giggles from the audience instead of screams of fright. The viewers on opening night opted almost from the beginning to treat the story as a laugher and that should cue Graney and Griffin that their project could only work as a comedy.
The traditional vampire story is garnished by injections of 21st century feminism in which one of the female characters goes on her soap box to attack female inequality in society and call for new wave of consciousness rising from women. At least I think that was what she was demanding. There was so much noise and tumult on the stage that it was difficult to glean many passages of meaningful dialogue through the uproar.
A modern stageworthy version of “Dracula” is not impossible. Back in the 1970’s, Frank Langella played the count on Broadway as a sensual young man who underscored the undercurrent of eroticism in the story, all that neck biting of helpless young maidens put in thrall of a fascinating if monstrous male. The adaptation had a point of view, abetted by deliciously spectral atmospheric designs from Edward Gorey. The adaptation didn’t scare anyone but it was a fun adult evening in the company of an enticing villain.
The Mercury “Dracula” does inject some mordant wit in the dialogue toward the end and a bit of unexpected but neatly timed profanity. And the vulgarity of all the grotesque bloodiness is funny in its perverse way. There is just enough legitimate adult humor on offer to make the spectator yearn for more, instead of the continually roaring by Dracula and the wooden acting that dominated the performance. An exception can be made for Erin Barlow as the insane Renfield. The character was a man in the original and converted to female for no obvious reason, but Barlow had a grand time eating up the scenery in her frenzies. And Aurora Real de Asua enjoyably took over much of the play in the second act as Mina, an ostentatiously strong-willed young lady with heavy feminist leanings.
For this “Dracula” to have a future, it needs to be rushed back to the workshop drawing board and revised into a coherent narrative with at least minimally credible characters uttering speakable dialogue. Dracula the man should be a magnetic figure of evil and not just a blowhard. As matters stand now, the Mercury would have been better advised to extend its superb revival of “Hair” instead of clearing the way for this not-ready-for-prime-time disappointment.
The show gets a rating of.
“Dracula” runs through November 5 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $55. Call 773 325 1700 or visit mercurytheaterchicago.com.
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