Also see Bob's review of Playhouse Creatures
The Repertory Theater of St. Louis is celebrating the Halloween season with a brilliant production of Dean and Balderston's venerable and familiar melodrama based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula It's an evening of gloriously over-the-top theatricality, the spirit of which can be gauged beautifully by the fact that the special effects get show-stopping applause.
The play is a tightly written, two act version of the longer story, beginning in the middle of the action with Count Dracula already ensconced at his desolate English country house and the innocent young Lucy Seward already displaying symptoms of contact with him. There's not much suspense; the fact that Dracula is the villain is plain to all the characters soon after the stalwart Doctor Van Helsing arrives from Holland. All that remains to be done is to render him helpless, and most of the work involved in that is done off stage. Only the final confrontation, the discovery of the final, elusive box of Transylvanian earth and the driving in of the stake, is played out, but that is – as staged by director Stephen Hollis and his technical crew – a splendid piece of theater.
The production evokes more laughter than fright, but steps deftly around the edges of a descent into camp. In part, this strength is the result of genuinely outstanding special effects and ingenious design. Paul Shortt's Victorian gothic interior set captures the atmosphere of Dr. Seward's sanatorium very well, and the careful placement of elements such as windows allows smooth operation of the technical tricks that allow Dracula to enter flying or disappear before our eyes. The costumes, by Wade Laboissonniere, not only add to the atmosphere but help to define the characters who wear them. Lucy's dresses and lingerie are particularly well thought out, and Dracula's cape is both technically and visually perfect. Kirk Bookman's lighting is complex and powerful; one sequence in which Dracula moves about while his face is constantly washed with green is especially memorable.
Strong performances by an experienced cast match the technical strength of the production. Elizabeth Helitzer as the maid, Miss Wells, gives a perfectly timed and accented reading of a very difficult supporting role. It isn't easy to find the right way to say, "Yes, Master" to Dracula, but she manages to make it convincing. Scott Schafer gets physically and vocally close to the limit as the fly-eating madman, Renfield, but keeps his reading firmly this side of camp. Kurt Rhoads is an elegant and commanding Dracula, and Jeffrey Withers a stalwart young Jonathan Harker. John Michalski and Richard Easley are solid as Van Helsing and Seward, and Larry Bull does good work keeping the inevitably comic role of the attendant funny but not farcical. The charming Julia Coffey manages Lucy's abrupt transitions from suffering victim to assertive vamp adroitly. Director Hollis keeps things moving at a rapid pace; only an overlong scene change in the second act impinges on the gathering dramatic force.
It's a bit of a stretch to call the Rep's Dracula scary, but it is scarily good, a technically dazzling and dramatically intense evening of theater. The production will run through November 4; for ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.