BWW Reviews: Center for the Arts' DRACULA Never Takes Wing
There have been countless stage adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula since it was first published in 1897, with the quality of those scripts varying greatly, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, and WilLiam McNulty's adaptation - which first premiered at Actor's Theatre of Louisville in 2007 and most recently was presented by Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts in a three-week run through October 23 - falls somewhere squarely in the middle. McNulty's Dracula adheres closely to Stoker's original dictates, but he gives his version of the tale of the bloody Count's life in England a decidedly contemporary flavor.
With vampires such a hot topic (seriously, could the timing be any more perfect than now for the tale of a legendary bloodsucker like the Transylvanian Count?) in American popular culture, you'd think it would be a slam dunk for a theater company to stage a show like Dracula - and it would be if you had a better script to work with, the sharper focus of the creative team and more assertive direction. No matter how much fake blood you throw on the actors or makeup trickery you employ, if the actors are not all on the same page, your Dracula is more likely to drive a stake through the heart of the audience, rather than to delight them with stage magic that transports them to the play's other-worldly setting.
Certainly, most of the problems are due to McNulty's script, full of faux intellectualism that drains the melodramatic fervor from Dracula's tale as certainly as The Count drains the blood from any hot girl in a corset. Further, McNulty's take on the Count - he's "a vicious and unscrupulous monster," the playwright maintains - differs from most contemporary portraits that paint him as a veritable sex machine. While McNulty can create a character any way he sees fit, it would help to make if he weren't made out to be a cartoon character.
In fact, in his notes for the script, McNulty urges production teams to revert to their 12-year-old selves in order to present as "wild and bloody as your imagination and your technical facilities will allow" - which may explain why the production onstage at the Center for the Arts was so unfocused and so plodding. Director Bryan Sunday-Booth's vision for Dracula, showing flashes of the creative and the imaginative, obviously needed to be more refined in order to make the play easier to follow and to make its overall tone much more sinister.
McNulty's script - which is excessively talky thanks to all that exposition that mars the two-act play, but was most apparent during the prologue (which may still be happening so far as I know) - is uninspired, in need of some judicious editing and the assistance of a dramaturg to help flesh out the story and its characters and to more effectively set the time and place of the story in the minds of the people watching the play.
Sunday-Booth's artistic vision for the piece is somewhat muddled: He attempts to create an air of suspense through the use of lighting and sound (which includes the funereal music the director has composed for the production that sounds like so many dissonant chords strung together, lacking any sense of a melody to provide the underscoring needed to create greater tension), but despite his best efforts to achieve that ambience for Dracula, the overly long and far too noisy set changes dash any hopes of the scenes moving fluidly from one to the next. Making better use of the theater's physical trappings - that Act Two opening scene set in a graveyard and featuring a back-from-the-dead Mina feasting on the blood of a little girl particularly comes to mind - would have saved at least one of those scene changes from stopping the flow of the play's action. Those set changes prevented any suspension of disbelief that would make the play all the more palatable. But let's face it, anytime you have four to nine stagehands come onstage to move a set piece, there's no amount of theatrical sleight of hand that can transport an audience to an estate on the English coast (particularly when one character is brandishing a battery-power flashlight while tromping around the set like a lovelorn stevedore).
Given the weight of McNulty's pedantic script and the lugubrious pacing of the action, Sunday-Booth's cast makes the most of their assignments, with particularly appealing performances from Angela Gimlin (as Lucy) and Michael Adcock (as Jonathan Harcourt), whose palpable onstage chemistry helps to make their scenes quite effective. The performances of Todd Seage (as Van Helsing) and Bill Stewart (as Seward) initially were somewhat off-putting, yet both men were able to overcome those first awkward moments as the play's action progressed, ultimately paying off for both. John-Mack Green, as Dracula, gives a thoroughly committed performance, but his prosthetic fangs proved a distraction.