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Theatre in Review: Dracula/Frankenstein (Classic Stage Company)

Caption: Top: Kelley Curran, Jamie Ann Romero, Jessica Frances Dukes. Photo: James Leynse. Bottom: Stephanie Berry. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Classic Stage has been converted to a house of horrors for the winter, although perhaps not in the way intended. In any case, it is offering new versions of two classic chillers, each of which has been adapted to death in various media. These vividly demonstrate the challenges of finding something new to say about such thrice-told tales (I'm underestimating wildly here), to say nothing of the difficulties of scaring up any new frights.

Dracula is the latest entry in the Kate Hamill Survey of Nineteenth-Century Literature course. (The playwright has previously adapted for the stage Vanity Fair, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Little Women -- along with Mansfield Park, which hasn't yet been seen in New York.) Her wisenheimer approach, notable for its condescension toward the attitudes and mores of another century, works better with some authors than others. (Vanity Fair proved that she and William Makepeace Thackeray made a nice acidic pairing; to my mind, her Austen adaptations suffered from a sensibility gap.) Her Dracula features the odd self-serving gag, but most of the time the playwright is intent on making sure that we get her point. And she won't let up until she is really, really sure.

Thus, the heroine, Mina Harker, laments, "I know I am a married lady now and must resign myself to no more adventures, but I should still like to experience the world, and I fear [her husband] Jonathan is my only opportunity." Her friend Lucy adds, "I have no family, and while I am comfortable enough, without a husband I have no future, no prospects; I cannot even dictate how my money is spent, it's all held in trust. But our whole destinies are wrapped up in the men we marry; once we are wed, we are little better than their chattel." Commenting on the asylum laws of the period, Lucy says, "Isn't it awful that men can lock us away if we run too wild?" Contemplating her upcoming marriage, she notes, "It is terrible to think that I am putting myself under someone's power, so completely." Even Renfield, the asylum case who snacks on flies and small vermin, gets in the act, observing, "But ladies cannot, you know, sign deeds or buy property!" Lucy, further dejected by the perfidy of men, looks at the pregnant Mina and murmurs, "I hope you don't have a girl, Mina. I hope your little one -- gets a fighting chance."

Well, Hamill certainly knows how to set a tone; these are but a small sample of the feminist lamentations that suffuse her script. Indeed, the inequities of the age are practically all they talk about, a rather peculiar fact what with so many vampires and associated nut cases prowling the stage. Under the circumstances, it may not surprise that when Dr. Van Helsing shows up, she is a black American cowboy with no use whatsoever for men. Offered assistance by Dr. Seward, the fatuous head of the mental institution where much of the play unfolds, she snaps, "You can fetch me a coffee." She repeatedly, emphatically announces, "I am no lady," a remark that was obvious the first time. Commenting on supernatural phenomena, she says, "The unbelievable quickly becomes believable -- if pigheaded men will only listen!" Turning intersectional, she says, "When the ruling class writes history, the words of the common people, of women, become superstition, but there is truth in [it]." Going all Karl Max on us, she theorizes, "Some of my benighted male colleagues post that these creatures are a natural evolution of man. In order for that theory to be true, you must accept that to become the most vicious consumer is to become the highest self." "God, I hate a lecture," mutters Seward, and, once, the fool has a point.

Indeed, Hamill bangs away at her theme so insistently that this Dracula often seems like an extended Chautauqua lecture. Oddly missing while this uplifting discussion unfolds is Dracula himself; until the eleventh hour, the title character gets surprisingly little stage time. Then again, as written by Hamill and played by the handsome and normally capable Matthew Amendt, he is strangely lacking in menace or seductive appeal; rather, he comes across as a minor Eurotrash aristocrat, chicly dressed and forever in a snit about the servant problem.

One character who does get plenty of stage time is Renfield, here made into a woman and played by Hamill in a costume that unaccountably makes her look like The Mummy. Renfield is yet another victim of the male power structure, a "lady-poet" who "wrote sonnets about flowers, and the countryside, and all that." (Romance writers, take note.) She adds, "I had faith in their authority once, worshiped the shibboleth of chivalry, sold my soul for sweet words" until she met Dracula, whom she calls "Daddy" and tries to summon with a twisted version of the Lord's Prayer. Hamill, who is never happier than when making faces and howling like a banshee, goes at the role tooth and nail.

Well, you get the point. The entire audience gets the point. People passing CSC on 13th Street probably get the point, so insistent is this Dracula in pressing its case against patriarchy. But if you don't think the sexual inequities of the Victorian Era are exactly front-page news, you might feel a tiny bit exhausted by it all. At least Sarna Lapine's direction keeps things moving, even if she has done nothing to curtail the cast's snarling tendencies. Kelley Curran, possessor of a fine period style, and Jamie Ann Romero are solid as Mina and Lucy. Jessica Frances Dukes -- last seen harvesting big laughs in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark -- is a bristling presence as Van Helsing. Matthew Saldivar, as the fat-headed Seward, who undergoes a last-minute change of heart, manages the trick of spoofing his character while earning sympathy for him.

John Doyle's spare thrust set -- which serves both plays -- works well enough. The clean lines and judicious use of color in Adam Honoré's lighting design gives the production a welcome touch of class. Robert Perdziola's costumes cleverly employ a nearly all-white palette (with tiny color accessories), with the exception of Van Helsing's ensemble of jeans, leather jacket, and cowboy hat, and a shocking appearance by Lucy, now one of the undead, in a scarlet frock. Leon Rothenberg's sound design -- which includes buzzing flies, a coach and horses, thunder, and the roar of a big cat -- makes a solid contribution.

The production picks up steam in the second act as talk gives way to action; the climax, featuring most of the principals running around a church crypt in the dead of night, is fairly exciting. It's too bad that Hamill couldn't find a way to embed her theme in the action of the play. Her lengthy, windy digressions on a well-worn subject constitute a worrying development for her as a writer.

At least, Hamill has written a play. Whatever Tristan Bernays is up to in his potted version of Frankenstein, it can't be called drama. It begins, rather intriguingly, with Victor Frankenstein's misbegotten creation coming to life on the operating table. (The entire first section has been lopped off; Bernays has no interest in exposition, based, I suppose, on the notion that everyone already knows the story.) Stephanie Berry, who plays the Creature, and the director, Timothy Douglas, bring a vivid sense of detail to this largely wordless sequence. The Creature sits up, learns to move each limb, and, carefully lifting each leg, transfers himself to the floor; Berry powerfully suggests the pain of his newfound physicality. Reaching into different metal cans, he devours some kind of food and instantly spits it out; the contents of another can are more to his liking. Interacting with an audience member, he identifies a number of objects -- a book, a coat; with each acquired bit of intelligence, including some halting words, a person comes into focus.

Then, suddenly, the Creature acquires the eloquence of, well, Mary Shelley and this Frankenstein bogs down in narration, focusing on the scenes everyone remembers. The Creature wanders into the home of the blind man, played by Rob Morrison, who, listed in the program as the Chorus, takes various roles, (He plays the guitar fluently, creating some eerie sound effects with his instrument.) As you probably know, this episode doesn't end well, and the Creature goes off in search of Frankenstein -- who had fled upon realizing what he had wrought -- demanding that Victor make him a companion for him. Berry takes on the role of Frankenstein as well; she doesn't do much to differentiate the characters, nor does she manage to invest their scenes with anything like menace or tension. Rather than act the text, the actress -- who made a strong impression not long ago in Sugar in Our Wounds at Manhattan Theatre Club -- has, apparently, been directed to declaim it.

What follows is so resolutely undramatic as to defy description. Suffice to say that the audiobook is probably more compelling; at least you'd get the full original text. What's especially baffling about this production is the lack of a fresh point of view; a story that has, over the years, been updated, spoofed, used as a metaphor, provided an opportunity for spectacle, or scared the daylights out of audiences is given the most dutiful, uninspired rendition possible.

Once again, Honoré's lighting attractively reshapes the space for each scene, and Rothenberg's sound design -- including fluttering bird wings, the sizzle of an electric current, and the tolling of bells -- is expertly done. But this piece feels like a work made for hire, done out of a desire to provide a vest-pocket stage version of Shelley's book rather than a driving need to say something. Does this production extend Dracula's critique of the patriarchy? It ends with the Creature helplessly calling out for his "father," and you could certainly say that Frankenstein is an account of male hubris run amok. But neither production makes its case with much gusto. Both offer horror of the most sedate sort: the horror of dullness. --David Barbour

(18 February 2020)

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