Sunday, October 9, 2011

ASF: "Dracula"

Vampire-mania is clearly with us [see Twilight, True Blood, et al.], so what better way to prepare for the upcoming Halloween season than with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's suitably dressed-out version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula as adapted by William McNulty.

Played straightforwardly [along with some appropriately melodramatic comic renderings of dialogue] by a talented ensemble of veteran ASF actors and newcomers to the Montgomery stage on Peter Hicks's gloriously Gothic & period sets, director Geoffrey Sherman allows his actors to find nuances of character to suit McNulty's well-crafted and literate script. -- Yes, there are the familiar lines that draw audience responses [for example: "I never drink (pause)" says Dracula; and, of course on hearing a wolf's howl: "Listen to them, the children of the night; what sweet music they make!"]; but these and others are spoken with conviction of character that fit the script without further comment.

Brett Rominger's eerily lush musical score, claps of thunder, and plenty of smoke introduce us to a Nosferatu monster [Craig Hanson] -- with long fingers & sharp mails, a hunch-back, and bulging bald head -- as he takes his first victim in a graveyard, a child [Ella Grace Johns]. A fluid scene change to Dr. Seward's large Victorian-Gothic consulting room: Abram Van Helsing [Paul Hebron] is ushered in by Irish housekeeper Margaret Sullivan [Jennifer Barnhart]; when she leaves him, Renfield [Greg Jackson] enters pretending to be a doctor/consultant, though he is one of the inmates in Seward's hospital.

It is clear from the outset that all is not well: Renfield's strangely erratic behavior and his regular attempts to escape, his eating of live animals beginning with flies, then rats, then..., and his references to "forces beyond his control" are a study in madness and he has to be kept under control by asylum attendant Briggs [Brik Berkes]; Seward [Keith Merrill] is "paralyzed with grief" over the mysterious death of Mina [Sandra Struthers Clerc] and the failing health of Lucy Westphal [Mairin Lee], caused, it seems, by certain wounds on her neck, and has summoned his mentor Van Helsing to solve the matter.

The mention of a new neighbor, Count Dracula [Juri Henley-Cohn], impacts Van Helsing immediately, and when Dracula insinuates himself into the house and seduces several of the people there, Van Helsing's diagnosis is that Lucy does not have a disease, but is in thrall of the un-dead...Nosferatu...the vampire. Soon, Dracula also controls the housekeeper.

When Lucy's fiance Jonathan Harker [John P. Keller] returns after having made his escape from Dracula's castle in Transylvania, the hunt is soon on to find and destroy the monster Dracula.

The story is so familiar, that there is no doubt about the ending; the delight is in the journey to it; and there are a few surprises. -- Yes, there will be blood [not too much]; yes, there will be special effects, some of which are startling, and all of which are accomplished so that audiences wonder "How did they do that?"

Mr. Berkes returns to ASF after successes last season to a strong showing here, and Mr. Hebron -- too long away from the ASF stage -- is exceptional as Van Helsing. Ms. Clerc and Ms. Lee alternate the roles of Mina and Lucy, providing each the opportunity of showing both the prim & proper vs. the possessed character. Ms. Barnhart's role affords no-nonsense practicality and devious passion. Mr. Keller's Harker is at once tortured and sympathetic. And Mr. Merrill's depth of feeling is impressive. -- In a role so well written as to almost steal the show, Mr. Jackson's Renfield is lively, intelligent, and no doubt a madman, but one who achieves audience sympathy...and very funny at times.

As we watch Dracula weave his influence and make others writhe in pain as they try to escape his physical control, Mr. Henley-Cohn's powerful presence bewitches us as much as it does the characters on-stage -- we can't help but be caught in his spell, by the irresistability of the forbidden.

Finally, his lair discovered and his end ensured with holy water, a crucifix, and a stake through the heart, with elaborate special effects Dracula's spell over the several initiated vampires appears to be over...but is it?