Smart Women, Dangerous Men

Dracula and Fur Tempt Females With the Dark Side

The cast of Fur: (l to r) Elaine Williams, Stephanie Swenson, Martin Burke

Women pine for him. Still, he slouches in the corner, filling the room with a strange yet pervasive energy that draws females like moths to a flame. While they know they will be destroyed by his fire, women also know that it will be the ride of a lifetime. James Dean was one. F. Scott Fitzgerald another. The list of such dark men, wrapped in their own destruction yet somehow magnetic, is long and distinguished. On today's screens, they run rampant: Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, the late River Phoenix. But the persona embodied in these males has been haunting our culture for centuries, in the archetype of the dark, shadowy man who lures women with his aura of excitement, uses them up, and moves on to the next victim.

One such is Dracula, the Transylvanian vampire who just can't resist a nubile young neck, be it male or female. But Mina, the young Victorian maiden who uses Dracula to break free from her society, is more than the average victim. This dark fellow is visiting The Public Domain stage during the month of October, just in time for Halloween and for the Chronicle to speak with Lenore Perry, the woman who plays the woman who wants him.

Another such mysterious visitor inhabits Migdalia Cruz's Fur, now playing at Planet Theatre. The character of Michael cages Citrona in his lair and uses Nena, a huntress who is madly in love with him, to care for his bound woman. Not exactly the best way to win friends and influence people, yet Nena, played by Elaine Williams, wants this bad boy and will do almost anything to have him.

This dark streak is wildly successful for these men, and many real-life males just like them. The question is why are strong women so ready to roll over and allow themselves to be sucked dry or manipulated by these jerks when there are so many nice guys waiting for a date? Wonder no longer.

Austin Chronicle: You've both been working with your characters long enough to have a good idea about what makes them tick. Describe Mina and Nena.

Lenore Perry: Mina is a good, very good person. She's totally pure and innocent, living in a Victorian world and accepting it. However, she's strong and kind of a feminist. She's a teacher. She studies a lot. She's always trying to better herself, to become better. Always. She's engaged to this man and would never, ever, do anything to jeopardize that relationship. She's so in love with her fiancé.

AC: How about Nena?

Elaine Williams: Nena is a huntress. She's past 30. Her clock is ticking and she wants a family. She needs a man to take care of her, and she wants to make Michael fall in love with her. That's her throughline for the whole play. That's very manipulative, trying to make someone fall in love with you. She tries all of these different tactics. Nena is very conniving and manipulative. But independent. She's a survivor.

AC: Why do you think she chooses Michael?

EW: I hadn't thought about that. I think she's attracted to him, to that darkness, because she is dark, even though in the play she talks about how he wears white so well; he shines like light. But there is definitely a darkness to him. I also think it's human nature to want what we can't have. When the ego gets involved and is like, "I'll win him over. I can do it." You create the challenge.

AC: So why do you think Mina is drawn to Dracula? Is it just the trance?

LP: Talking about Dracula is so weird because there are so many versions. I always refer back to the book. In the book, it was a rape scene and nothing more. But this version [being produced by Public Domain] was written in 1995, not 1897, when we're willing to explore the kind of thing that we're talking about. I do think that there are aspects of that.

She's totally and completely seduced by him. I don't think it really is a trance when you get to it. Of course, she's not conscious; she's completely freaked out and not even thinking. When you don't even remember what happened because it's so emotional and overpowering that you're not really there -- I think that's what she goes through when he actually gets her.

It's tempting. It's inviting. She's curious. Everybody wants to know about this evil, black side that's so far away from us. Especially for Mina because [quoting from the play] "it's richest in a soul most pure." I think that's true, because the more pure you are, the farther away it's going to be and you're going to be more curious about it.

AC: Is Mina afraid of that side of her character?

LP: Very possibly. Lucy is much more in touch with her sexuality, obviously. She's already there, at the start of the show. She's ready to play. It's uncomfortable for Mina. She's not in touch. The opportunity presenting itself like that, right there. Plus, she's hungry. She does want blood. It all feeds into it and makes it happen.

AC: Do you think Nena is drawn to Michael in the same way? That she's actually still pure?

EW: No. I don't think of Nena as pure. I think she's been around the block quite a few times. Citrona only wants young, beautiful girls to bring her flesh and Nena catches herself because she knows she's not really young in anyone's eyes. One of her main things is that she wants to have a family. She talks about "my life is just beginning," "I have no family," "Michael is raising me now but not like family." Her clock is really ticking. I don't think she's pure at all. She wants him to purify her in a way; he's white and light.

AC: Why do you think strong women like Mina and Nena are drawn to these bad guys?

LP: I think there are a lot of reasons, and I don't know if they are related to one another or if they are all separate. There's a quality in women that is so self-deprecating that they honestly want someone to beat them up -- I don't mean that literally. Like, "I deserve this." I really think that that happens, especially in the most intensely dysfunctional relationships. That's what is behind a lot of it. You want someone to torture you because you'll feel less guilty about being good.

I also think that there's intrigue in the mystery. It's so exciting. There's a real need and desire to explore the unexpected. Who wants to know what is going to happen next? You get that element of surprise when you are with a dark character.

EW: Some people are addicted to the drama. A lot of actors like drama in their lives, even though that should just be onstage. Also, I think women try to nurture; it's in our nature to want to nest and nurture. "Oh, if I love him enough, he'll get better. I can fix him. I'll be the one to change him."

LP: I think there's a lot of that as well.

AC: Do either of your characters believe that they can change these guys?

EW: Definitely. He rejects Nena right off and she still goes after him. She definitely thinks she can change him; she's going to make him love her. She throws herself at him. She's patient. She works for him. She flirts, tries to make him jealous. She tries a lot of different ways.

AC: Have either of you had similar experiences with "dangerous" guys?

LP: I can think of a couple. I can think of one devil that I dated for two years.

AC: That's a long time.

LP: I know. It was the mystery. He even spoke in completely cryptic language. He was so bizarre. The moment I saw him, I had to have him. At once. I hadn't dated anyone in three or four years, I wasn't ready to date anyone, but I had to have him. No one else could understand my attraction to this person. But I was really eager to do something different.

And there was another one, who was his best friend, the devil's devil, like the lord of the devil. Really. He's dead now. It was really bad. But he was a dear to my heart person, although I didn't date him. I wanted to change that one that I dated and I wanted to change this one in a way, too. I knew I couldn't change anything, but I saw this little gold nugget, this diamond in his heart, and I wanted to get at it. I worshipped that so much. I knew that there was purity and an angel in there.

And the fact that there was just this amazing human being who took up the whole room, anywhere he went. Here was this amazing thing that I wanted to have. It was like, "Take me with you."

AC: Have you had a similar experience?

EW: Oh yeah. There's this one particular guy who I keep referring a lot to when I work on the play. He was just beautiful, one of those drop-dead gorgeous men that walk into a room and every woman notices him. At times, we'd be at parties and people would go, "Elaine, you're the only girl in here that he hasn't slept with." I wanted him from day one, but I didn't want to be another number. So we were just friends forever. And everyone would say, "Elaine, how can you be with him?" He was such an asshole, very arrogant and self-absorbed. We didn't have the deepest conversations but he would show me the other side that no one else could see.

He was never abusive physically, but he could be detrimental emotionally, about some issues that I had. Someone who really loved me would never have gone there, you know?

AC: But was that exciting?

EW: It was very exciting. It was this challenge to keep him interested so I wouldn't end up being one more number. Because we had the friendship as a base, it was different. But there was a lot of mystery. He was totally unpredictable, totally moody. You never knew which way you were headed. We did have a lot of fun. But it was a dark thing.

AC: Do you think these experiences have informed the way that you are playing these characters?

EW: Definitely, for me. Especially now that I've had the hindsight of a few years and I consider myself in a much healthier place. I'm attracted to much nicer guys now, supportive and loving. Sometimes it gets a little bit boring, but I think you have to leave that dark side behind.

AC: So how do you feel that your past relationship informed your choices for Nena?

EW: It helps me understand why she wants Michael so much and why she's so relentless.

AC: How about you, Lenore?

LP: Probably the one I didn't date. I don't call on that for most of it, but I know that I have referred to it in moments of the play, especially remembering the feeling of that desire that you know you shouldn't have. You know you shouldn't do it and yet you have to go. You have to do it. I lived that feeling, so it's really easy to use it. I don't even have to think about it. I just do it.

AC: Do you think that women are taught not to acknowledge that need for excitement and try so hard to be like Mina, to stay pure and innocent?

LP: Today's woman?

AC: Sure. Or do you think it's changed?

LP: I do think it's changed. It was really, really extreme in the Victorian period. I think it's just women and men, people being attracted to things that are different from themselves and things that are exciting to them. But I think women are taught it in subconscious ways, through the media or other channels. My mom never taught me to be a "proper" woman. She just said be yourself and it will all be all right. It's not like I was taught to cross my legs and lift my little finger, but still the messages were fed to me a number of ways.

EW: I would have to agree, although I think it is changing a lot. One of my housesitting clients is this older nurse and she has the coolest car. It surprised me, because it just didn't fit the idea of what I thought she would drive. It's this Trans-Am, macho, bad, power car. It totally threw me for a loop. I think we're ingrained, but women are breaking out more and more. Look back a few generations, as far as staying home and taking care of the nest while the men went out and did the fun, fast things.

LP: If you look at Dracula, which was 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, we hadn't made any headway, though it may have seemed dramatic at the time. We've definitely gone a lot further.

But I was thinking about your question and wondering if we could get rid of the man/woman division. Do you think men are taught to be dark and wild or is everyone taught to be pure and good?

AC: I don't know. You hear "nice" guys complain about how women are attracted to nasty, bad guys. What's the point of being nice if you can't get chicks? I think it does work both ways. It's just interesting to me that theatre keeps picking up on the same themes. Dracula was written in 1897, Fur was written in 1991, but they use the same concept -- dark, bad guy and a woman who wants him even though it will lead to her destruction. It just keeps repeating itself.

LP: It's almost obvious. I mean, Mina is an obvious character -- she's the pure one who takes a great journey, which is great fun -- and I've been wondering why this role has been so wonderful for me and I realized that I enjoy acting in the second act more than the first act, the pure act. Even the theatre has tempted me to go that direction and enjoy it more and more.

AC: Do you think theatre is like that dark guy?

EW: That's what I was just thinking. Always mysterious and elusive. You never know what to expect.

LP: And the more dysfunctional the character is, the more you want to do it. You get to explore that emotional maze and go into the mind of a complete maniac, which is what you are doing if you are attracted to a dark man.

Fur runs through Nov 1, Thu-Sat, 8pm, at Planet Theatre. Call 454-TIXS for info. Dracula runs through Nov 8, Thu-Sat, 8pm, at The Public Domain. Call 474-6202 for info.

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