Zach's bloodless 'Dracula' is sexy but lacks bite
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula” is one of the founding pieces of literature setting out the modern-day mythology of the vampire, and as a result it has been adapted into countless formats. In 1996, Stephen Dietz crafted a stage version of the story that has proved enormously popular over the past two decades, and even more recently he has updated that text. Dietz, who is an Austinite these days, now directs the latest mounting of that updated text, playing at Zach Theatre through November 3.
Where this updated text most diverts from Dietz’ original adaptation is in the elimination from the narrative of the character of Abraham Van Helsing, who is often seen as the heroic opposite to the titular vampire’s villainy. In this version, Mina Murray — one of Dracula’s victims — takes Van Helsing’s place. Though this does run into some tonal problems, when the character must instantly flip between screaming victim and scheming researcher, it does create a slightly more female-centric lens to the story. Indeed, the greatest strength of this script is its focus on female sexuality, often embodying the seductive mesmerizing nature of Dracula as a physical seduction of the play’s women.
Unfortunately, Dietz is a much stronger playwright than director, and he seems to have trouble pinning down the tone of his own text. The lustiness of the seductive scenes feels jarringly at odds with the Victorian staidness of expository scenes or the cackling campiness of the scenes with Dracula or his mentally disturbed harbinger, Renfield. What’s more, the production deploys a great amount of lighting, sound and staging effects that don’t quite gel (though Cliff Simon’s set design is gloriously creepy and cartoonish), coming to distract the audience from the actors rather than emphasizing the strengths of their performances.
The strongest performances, in many ways, come from Keith Contreras-McDonald as Dracula and Charlotte Gulezian as Renfield (who is confusingly still a man in the play, despite being portrayed by a woman), who are allowed free reign to rant and rave in a delightfully over-the-top manner. However, these takes on the characters, that are straight from a Hammer films version of the story, are not reflected by the rest of the cast, whose performances are more akin to that of a more staid, classic Universal Studios version. They are all extremely solid and psychologically realized — particularly Sarah Kimberly Becker’s Mina and Joseph Garlock’s Harker — but one wishes that Dietz gave them the same leeway to have fun with the Gothic trappings in the same way that Contreras-McDonald and Gulezian do.
Zach’s take on “Dracula” is, ultimately, an interesting take on the source material, but one that doesn’t quite bring its disparate pieces together into a satisfying whole.