Monday, July 21, 2014

Dracula On the Fringe

The 9th Annual Capital Fringe Festival (July 10 - 27, 2014) presents a new play titled Dracula - A Love Story by Tim Treanor, described as a modern take of the Bram Stoker classic.

I cannot remember how many versions of Dracula I've seen in my lifetime in theaters, in the movies and on TV.   One of the more recent ones was the 2005 take by the Synetic Theater - no words at all, but expressive mime and outstanding choreography.   There is also Dracula the musical and Dracula the ballet, which I have not seen.  But of all the many performances I have seen, only two really stick in my mind, both from the 1978/79 season in London's West End.  Oscar-winner George Chakiris took on the bloodthirsty Transylvanian count in a play titled The Passion of Dracula at the Queen's Theatre,  while Terence Stamp, a huge star at the time, rivaled him in Dracula just down the road at the Shaftebury Theatre.   Stamp's performance was declared a flop, but I enjoyed it anyway due also to the gorgeous sets by Edward Gorey.  Everything was black and white and shades of grey, except blood.  At about the same time Frank Langella's filmed version of Dracula hit big screens worldwide, after the star actor had completed a Broadway run as Vlad the Impaler.

Christine Hirrel as Mina Tepes, Lee Ordeman as Vlad Tepes
Treanor's Dracula is set in Washington D.C. - no swirling black cape and no foreign accent.   The title character, played by Lee Ordeman, is K Street lobbyist Vlad Tepes.  Lucy is a medical student whom he hires to take care of his ailing wife.  With such introduction, one could expect a play about blood-sucking politicians praying on innocent interns in the nation's capital, or some such theme.  But the subtitle of the play - A Love Story - suggests otherwise:  Dracula's immortal love for his wife perhaps?  Or Lucy's love for her fiance?  (In this case she has a long-distance relationship with New York-based Jack Klaxon.)  Well, neither as it turns out.  The play glorifies love between ordinary people in ordinary marriages.

I asked the author what made him choose such a well-known story as the basis of a modern play.  He said that while reading John Balderston's play based on Bram Stoker's novel he found that many of the themes from the novel were left unexplored, one of them being "rapture."

Carolyn Kashner as Lucy Cervas
"What Stoker recognized was the universal desire to surrender to a higher power, which drove in my play Lucy to make her choices. We see the same thing in our desire to fall in love.  We imagine ourselves to be transported to some place which is not in the human experience," said Treanor.  "When we fall in love, we expect to be enraptured and [the fact] that [Lucy's]  life did not have that caused her to make this incalculable mistake."

Treanor said we make similar mistakes when we expect our political leaders to solve all our problems without making any sacrifice on our part, or when we want to succeed in our lives without discipline.

Lucy, he said, fell pray to Tepes's suave seduction because she believed it would carry her into a world of immortal love and rapture.  Along the way, she realized that the lobbyist was only after her blood while real love was what her father had for her mother.  

"She realized that rapture could be had by ordinary people in doing ordinary things, that true love - true rapturous love - is not something for super-human creatures, doesn't require surrender of personality, but requires that you act in a real loving authentic way toward the other."

Brian Crane as Will Cervas, Joe Brack as Jack Klaxon
When she understood that, Treanor's Lucy made her choices:  she killed the source of her rapture (Dracula) and sacrificed her own life (as a vampire) in order to save others.  Unfortunately, too late for her loving fiance who is already killed by Dracula, and her loving father Will who takes his own life after she is gone.  

Treanor's message about love is not new, but he deserves credit for trying to present it in a novel way. Unfortunately, a lack of clarity in his drama often distracts from the central theme. One wonders, for example, if Vlad really cares about his wife Mina, or whether it is just an act for Lucy's sake.  Lucy's boyfriend is charming and he seems to care about her, but in a very nonchalant way.  Mina's role is completely unclear in this play.  Sub-standard acting does not help bring these loose ends together either. Ordeman's Dracula may be smooth in the way of a Washingtonian lobbyist, but that unfortunately means that he lacks the electricity and irresistible allure of an otherworldly being.  Carolyn Kashner's Lucy fights valiantly to project some of the rapture Treanor talks about.  

Kashner's acting combines the right balance of naïveté, curiosity and boredom for a Lucy Cervas of Washington D.C. and she just has enough charisma to sustain her through the play, even though her "crazy" scene of eating her dog's leg is hardly convincing. But when you have a play about Dracula with a Lucy more charismatic than the vampire  (even in relative terms) you know the show is in trouble. 

Few actors can match Langella, Chakiris or even badly panned Stamp, but Ordeman's Dracula was as dead on arrival as if he had never risen from his casket in Transylvania.

With a dubious exception of Kashner, I've seen better acting in my son's high school performances than I did in Mountain - Mount Vernon United Methodist Church on Sunday (July 20).  The operatic finale - a stage strewn with dead bodies - alas, produced no operatic rapture.

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