Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Count Dracula" -- Wetumpka Depot

The cool autumn air marks a new season, the night comes on a bit earlier, there's an almost full moon, Halloween is just around the corner, an organ blasts Bach's "Toccata & Fugue in D-Minor" signalling the start of the Wetumpka Depot Players' "Count Dracula", a 1977 witty spoof by Ted Tiller.

Forget about "Twilight" and "True Blood", Dracula remains -- from Bram Stoker's original through its many incarnations -- the ultimate vampire. Everyone knows the story in some guise or another, so they come prepared for any version they see.

Tiller's play takes a lot of liberties with the original novel, omitting and adding some characters, changing their names, and writing overtly melodramatic dialogue that is meant to garner laughs at a once serious subject that has become so much a part of popular culture that it passes for sheer entertainment. -- And, it succeeds in not taking itself too seriously, so purists ought not be dismayed.

Director John Collier creates a two-act production out of Tiller's three-act format, a wise move to sustain audience interest, though much of his first act is Tiller's rather belabored exposition setting up the circumstances and the characters. -- Dr. Seward [Tom Carmony] and his eccentric sherry-tippling sister Sybil [Hazel Jones] are concerned that Seward's ward Mina [Rae Ann Collier] is suffering from an unexplained disease, coincidentally soon after a visit to their home by the mysterious Count Dracula [Phil Tankersley]. Mina's fiancee Jonathan Harker [Brad Moon] and the eminent Doctor Van Helsing [Paul Travitsky] are on hand to soothe Mina's distress and determine the cause of her ailment.

Since Van Helsing is an expert on such matters, he concludes that Mina's anemic condition and strange mood-swings are the result of her victimization by a vampire none other than Dracula, who has conscripted a mad man named Renfield [Michael Snead], a patient under Dr. Seward's care, as his assistant.

On a set that evokes an Edwardian feel with its deep red walls and plush furniture and a lot of clutter, and a series of eerie sounding wolf howls and a classical musical score reminiscent of silent movie melodrama, we are -- despite no real attempt at executing the English accents dictated by the script -- taken into the world of the vampire story.

Collier's actors try mightily to deliver the goods of melodrama, but only partially succeed. All too often, hesitation and slow responses to cues slowed down the necessary intensity of the genre; perhaps this was brought on by opening night jitters, something that needs attention in order to not only keep our interest, but also to get more of the laughs that are inherent in the sophisticated script and bring the show to an end well under its 2 hour and 20 minute running time.

Even though the characters are all too familiar to us, and though caricature is certainly an option in their presentation, what came across frequently was broad brush-strokes without sufficient character development -- or possibly a tentative approach to the melodramatic style that allows and indeed encourages larger than life portrayals, broad gestures, passionate delivery of dialogue, energetic movement, and a significant amount of tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Whatever the reason, much of the production remained flat; however, there were some performances that got it right. -- Newcomer Brad Moon's Harker came across as a convincingly romantic hero whose concern for Mina was very real. His naturalistic voice and movement lend credibility to his portrayal. And veteran actor Tankersley's comical tribute to Bela Lugosi as Dracula was debonair as all get out, complete with several self-indulgent glances and winks at the audience.

Once the actors settle into their roles and gain more confidence, this production ought to become a laugh riot. The germs are there. Let them grow.