The Austin Chronicle

Different Stages' Dracula

Despite atmospheric design work and some strong acting, the production never quite realizes the sensuality and lyrical ferocity in Steven Dietz's script

Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, December 4, 2015, Arts

In these very pages on Oct. 22, 2004, reviewer Barry Pineo took to task my own spin on the Dracula mythos: a gender-swapped consideration titled Dracula: A Woman Scorned. His largest gripe was its seeming lack of focus and direction, along with his inability to tell if we were going for melodramatic comedy or genuine chills. I mention this now only to illustrate how difficult it can be to tell this particular story, keeping it on track using character development and strong, honest choices without slipping into trope.

To flip the script on the appropriate idiom about getting blood from a stone, the writing is not the issue of this Different Stages production. Steven Dietz's adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel is rock-solid, bringing the story to life with a rhythm, sensuality, and lyrical ferocity that isn't quite fully realized on the Vortex stage.

The design elements mostly hit the mark, with Lowell Bartholomee's video projections casting slick, sharp exteriors on a window/scrim to the rear of Ann Marie Gordon's creative and functional set, which includes hidden panels for the creepiest of entrances. Complementing the set is an appropriately spooky, shadowy lighting design by Patrick Anthony. Inhabiting this fantastic environment, however, is a mixed bag of performances. Some actors seem alone in their crafting of character, putting in the necessary work but lacking outside polish; others seem wholly unguided. Of note is the great work by Charles P. Stites, who embraces the madman in Renfield and handles him well; Beau Paul as Van Helsing; Trey Deason as Seward; Will Douglas as Harker; and Craig Kanne as an attendant.

Director Melissa Vogt makes some curious choices throughout the production, however, that hamper the work put in by all. She does not draw stronger performances from half of her actors and fails to reel in the other half when their natural instincts are to go over the top – as all do by the play's climax, slipping into those melodramatic tropes along the way, substituting screaming for dramatic action. The program lists no dialect coach, which may account for only a few actors remaining consistent throughout. Also puzzling are Vogt's choices for JM Specht's Dracula, whose "Transylvanian" dialect is consistent and flawlessly executed but also exists in our collective memory as a cartoonish caricature, making it rather difficult to take seriously his otherwise compelling and earnest performance. Shannon Mott's costume design, beautiful and well-researched for much of the play, pushes the vampyr past the point of believability in a flashback that has him in a white wig and flamboyant robe that seems to draw its inspiration from the 1992 Coppola film, and his final attire includes a flowery red vest more comical than not in the play's climactic moments. David DeMaris' sound design is more often than not complementary to the action onstage, but at times distracts in its attempt to steer the audience toward a particular emotion – admittedly covering Vogt's frequent lack of dramatic interaction between her characters. I don't wish to ruin any secrets of the stage magic employed by property master Helen Parish, though much of its razzle-dazzle seems more effect than affect.

There is a moment in the play when Seward and Dracula board the ship on which Dracula made his way from Transylvania to England and discover the skeleton of its captain lashed to the helm by a rosary. This is a perfect metaphor for the production itself; someone must steer the ship home, even with the difficulties of a blood-sucking monster involved. And this ship wants to float.

It is only fair to report that the curtain call of the performance I saw drew a litany of hoots and hollers along with applause, and had more than a few audience members on their feet. As my many misgivings may appear to others as virtues, you might do well to go and see for yourself whether the night is dark and full of terrors, or frustrations.


The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through Dec. 12
Running time: 2 hr., 5 min.

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