Regional Reviews: Chicago
Orson Welles' Dracula
The scenic design by Lauren Nichols is stellar, transforming the Raven Theatre's Schwartz Stage into the interior of an old-time radio. The upstage wall establishes the dark woodgrain that dominates the color scheme. The wood frame is more or less a scalloped triptych suggesting the radio's screened front. Just downstage of this, a series of three low platforms extending the width of the stage permits the visual staging of the events that the characters largely narrate from several low podiums fronting the downstage edge. These simultaneously suggest a courtroom, true to the flashback framing of the adaptation's plot, but also a nod to the distinct behind-mic spaces the actors would have occupied in Welles' time.
Stretched across the cutouts in the upstage wall is fabric to accommodate projections by DJ Douglass (also credited with the sound design). The projections are not particularly elaborate. Most often they are scene-setting sketches, yet they are enormously effective, particularly in conjunction with an excellent lighting design by Sam Stephen on the few occasions when the projections have a bit of motion to them. All in all, the static visuals come together beautifully to keep things always just a bit unnerving.
There are a few elements of the production design that are not quite as successful. Douglass's sound design is not especially elaborate. It certainly needn't be–after all, this is a production that is meant to be viewed, not exclusively listened to–but it ends up feeling uneven (and in the case of highly unrealistic gunshot sounds, distracting in not being as well integrated into an otherwise very well-executed, tight show).
On a similar note, the costuming (by The Lorraines) doesn't quite jell. Harker's tweedy vest, bow tie and bowler suggest the design will be period-suggestive but primarily out of closet, but the other male characters' dress is a mixed bag of nonspecific (but not late nineteenth/early twentieth century) suits, and in the case of Dracula, something that more or less harmonizes with Harker's look early on, but very definitely does not by the time he appears in a red, double-breasted suit. The women, in contrast, are decked out in very elaborate period gowns that are lovely, but the inconsistency in look and tone is a bit of a low-level distraction.
In terms of staging, director Brian McKnight (who also adapted Welles' script) chose to pay homage to the late ShawChicago Theater Company's "concert reading" approach: the actors deliver their lines directly to the audience, rather than one another. Although the technique works well on the whole, given the adaptation's radio origins and the conceit that the plot is being retrospectively narrated, the logic behind characters moving from one podium to the next does not quite come across. In some instances, but not necessarily all, it seems to reflect scene breaks and movement within a space. This is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that pacing is sometimes brisk to the point of feeling rushed, which makes the movement from one point to the next read as without purpose. In the end, the movement occasionally became a distraction when I would rather have focused on the story's unfolding.
The adaptation itself is lean and compelling, on the whole. Mina is satisfying elevated to a character with agency, and the bonds forged between the four main characters are not only compelling in their own right, they read as threads legitimately teased out of Stoker's pastiche and woven into something dramatically satisfying.
Chris Jensen portrays Jonathan Harker's paranoia and descent into madness with impressive skill, given that this is compressed into the very beginning of the play. He has considerable help from the Dracula of Andrew Bosworth, who plays the count with a kind of twenty-first century cult leader meets Michael Douglas in Wall Street to tremendous effect. His stillness and matter-of-fact delivery are a welcome unique take on a role that has strongly pulled in different directions since Lugosi's defining performance.
Connor Brennan plays Arthur Seward, the narrator and a composite of Lucy's three suitors, in an understated way that is effectively attentive to his castmates' larger performances. Similarly, Katie O'Neill makes her mark in the relatively small part of Lucy. In only a handful of lines, she renders the character believably desirable as both Seward's love interest and Mina's close companion. And her physicality is chilling in her undead form.
As Mina, Madeline Logan embraces the expanded, fleshed-out role for her character. She is active, determined, and ultimately fierce. Logan's performance, though, along with that of Howard Raik's as Van Helsing, does seem to suffer the most from the emphasis placed on brisk pacing. Mina has a tremendous amount of dialogue, as does Van Helsing. In Logan's case, the mandate to delivery lines with all speed seems to have prevented her from flexing some dramatic muscle that she certainly seems to have, and Raik struggles with projection as well as with the sheer amount of exposition. This latter reality suggests that the production could have kept itself clipping along in something close to Welles' sixty-minute time frame with judicious pruning of that.
I would be remiss not to mention Sam Martin's performance in a variety of roles, including the doomed Captain of the Demeter. The actor had to undertake some daunting wardrobe and hair quick changes, but these are less impressive than his rapid movement in and out of a variety of incidental characters that represented important connections in a fast-moving narrative.
Glass Apple Theatre's Orson Welles' Dracula runs through September 25, 2022, at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, visit www.glassappletheatre.com.