BWW Review: DRACULA IS MORE THAN JUST SCARY-GOOD FUN at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company had all of the fixings for a good scary-fun time at their opening of Steven Dietz's adaptation of Dracula on Friday, October 13. The new Otto M. Budig Theatre was gorgeous. There was plenty of room to move throughout the lobby and mingle with a signature cocktail (from the expansive bar) in hand. Producing Artistic Director/Director Brian Isaac Phillips was greeted by the lively, sold-out audience like a rock star as he made his announcements for added performances. (And he should be applauded for his terrific work on dragging the company out of their coffin-like theatre on Race Street into their new airy digs on Elm.)
Scenic designer Shannon Moore dressed the spacious thrust in gothic stone, iron, and lush red velvet. And as the evening progressed, Giles Davies as Dracula seemed to supernaturally float through an eerie fog as he simultaneously charmed and menaced his helpless prey. Rats, cats, and spiders were sucked dry by a madman in a straight-jacket and blood trickled from rosy lips as she-demons emerged out of thin air at the feet of shrieking audience members.
It was all good, scary-fun. That's what Dracula is supposed to be, right? A creepy but well-worn tale, as comfortable as an old pair of slippers, resurrected just in time for Halloween. We shudder at the gore and are thrilled by Bram Stoker's mysterious and alluring monster who stalks his prey in the night. But, the scariest part of the evening for me was not a hissing Dracula popping out of a coffin with pointy teeth bared and bloody. We've all seen that a million times. No, the scariest thing was the unfortunate realization that my ever-increasing awareness of societal ills is turning frivolous fun into serious commentary. Bummer.
Dracula's control over men and women is undeniable as he hypnotizes his way into private chambers; his victims are helpless under his spell as they willingly reveal their flesh to him. He moves in, they have second thoughts, they say "no," but he doesn't stop. He knows they want him. Deep down. So, as the scales of hegemony fall from my eyes, I simply can't watch "Dracula" without seeing the sexualized victimization of women, or the xenophobia of the west rooted in the patriarchy and the moral policing of the so-called fairer sex.
At a time when Harvey Weinstein and many other famous and powerful male predators are finally being called out, and with the heartbreaking "Me Too" movement on social media, it's hard to just let the fun wash over you. And then there are reminders of the rising xenophobia of young, angry Americans and the entitlement they feel to be the arbiters of western values.
Who is this mysterious, handsome stranger? He has strange habits, strange dress, a strange accent. Our western men fear him and are thrilled by him at the same time. He seems stronger, faster, smarter -- and most frightening of all? He turns our women into lusting wanton whores. Their virtue is stolen right under their noses. They are turned into monsters, unrecognizable to their western sweethearts who followed all the rules of courtship. Pure girls who were patient and kind to their suitors, delicate flowers that promised to be demure and hold tight to their virtue until they can marry. But in comes this...this... foreigner! The only answer is death. Death to the women for allowing themselves to be sullied and finally death to the dark stranger who sullied them.
In Dietz's faithful adaptation of the 1897 gothic horror novel, three men take it upon themselves to rid the west of this foreign abomination. Garlic is strung about everywhere and crucifixes are brandished like knives with no thought given to alerting any authorities. This must be done by themselves: a vigilante gang with their tiki-torches fighting to keep their values alive and their women pure. They are professors and lawyers and doctors -- men of importance -- and this and their maleness gives them all the authority they need to police the women's sexuality and run these foreign monsters out of town.
Now, I know. Dracula is an actual monster. A vampire, a "NOSEFERATU!" as Van Helsing often exclaims. It's supposed to be fun! But, you don't have to look too far beneath the surface to see what was actually influencing Stoker. We are supposed to identify with Jonathan Harker, after all, the meek "everyman" clerk sent to a wild and unknown land to meet with the Count, who slowly reveals his intention to colonize Harker's homeland. This demon! This devil! He will spill your blood and destroy everything you find holy and pure and good. (Especially your women.)
Strangely, playwright Steven Dietz might be disappointed that I read all of this into his play. In a 1997 Playbill interview he came right out and said that he wanted to just do a faithful adaptation of the novel. Other playwrights had strayed too far away from the original, in his opinion, and relied too heavily on monster as metaphor. He said that making Dracula a metaphor amounted to "cheating." But, as a result, I wasn't always sure what his 1996 adaptation was trying to accomplish. Dietz's play weaves the book into a braid. One moment you are in flashback (most of Harker's visit to the castle in Transylvania) and the next you are in the present. This becomes confusing and unfortunately dissolves some of the tension, eventually devolving to the point where I had to ask myself, "Why is everyone yelling exposition at me?"
The cast on Friday night managed to squeeze emotion and terror out of a script that had very little of either. But the antics on stage weren't what made my hair stand on end. In the 1997 Playbill article Deitz says: "A metaphor doesn't wait outside your window under a full moon. A metaphor doesn't turn into a bat and land on your bed...the actual being is the most haunting." But, I disagree. Some of us are terrified of those "metaphors." Those are the true monsters, lurking in America's shadows, resurrected from their slumbers and emboldened by a sympathetic new regime. Kudos to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for choosing a play that is as dark as the times we live in.
Go here for tickets and more information.
Photo: Giles Davies as Dracula and Miranda McGee as Lucy in Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's 2017 production of Dracula by Steven Dietz, from the novel by Bram Stoker, playing October 13- November 4, 2017.
Performances will be located at The Otto M. Budig Theater, 1195 Elm Street in OTR.
Tickets are available online now at cincyshakes.com or by calling the box office
Photo By Mikki Schaffner Photography.