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Review: MAC WELLMAN'S DRACULA at Mildred's Umbrella

By: Oct. 24, 2015
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Seems this time of year a theatre troupe has to trot out a version of DRACULA, and for Halloween 2015 in Houston experimental company Mildred's Umbrella is taking the honors. They produced MAC WELLMAN'S DRACULA back in 2004 in the earliest days of their history with a performance at 1415 California Street. That version was stripped down without much in the way of sets or costumes, and was housed in the first floor of a complex that was a bar converted from a school. It had a very "let's rent the barn and put on a show" type spirit that Mildred's Umbrella had to have back in those early days. Eleven years later they now have a gorgeous set, incredible costumes, and a nice sound system that allows them to seamlessly integrate the sound effects, spoken dialogue, and spontaneous songs the script calls for. The move to the decidedly more posh Spring Street Studios agrees with their new attitude. They've matured and so has their take on this resurrected project.

MAC WELLMAN'S DRACULA is a peculiar script written by a playwright who never wanted to do anything traditional or expected. His aim was always to create collage that would work for a specific space, and it has the feel of improvisation and a "happening". It starts with the traditional Stoker monologues from characters describing spooky events at Whitby and in Transylvania, but soon songs and dances come out of nowhere. Puppets pop up, anachronisms are thrown out without much thought, and the story becomes impressionistic despite the familiar horror trappings. You're never sure if this is meant to be serious, a comedy, or a deranged musical about hair floating through the air. Nothing makes much sense, and the tone from scene to scene varies wildly without structure or narrative.

Jennifer Decker asserts in her director's notes that she seeks to amplify the misogyny of Stoker's era through Mac Wellman's script. The story here is that the bad girl Lucy is punished for her sexual awakening by the men who have to drive a stake through her to stop her. I'm not sure Wellman would completely agree when his script just seems to give sardonic commentary on how lame culture has become, and how silly his Dracula can be. The play is too disconnected from scene to scene to ever really make any definitive statements, and in the end the audience will have to take from it what they intuit from the proceedings.

The girls are the focus of this production, and they have a great amount of talent and beauty to share. The two leads are returning from the 2004 production. Mina played by Christie Guidry goes from prim and proper buttoned up lady to blood soaked sexy vixen nicely, and she is grounded in the traditional journey of the Victorian horror story. Lucy as portrayed by Patricia Duran has a penchant for poking fun at the lines, and she is certainly more modern in her interpretation of the piece. She unleashes the repressed sexuality of her character, and becomes the heart of the show. They both perform broken doll dance routines at the top and closing of the show which are well executed pieces of absurdism. The three vampire brides (Sara Jo Dunstan, Katrina Ellsworth, and Arianna Bermudez) bring a campy burlesque sensibility to their parts which often consist of musical numbers and cackling at the Count's nefarious actions. They are the Greek chorus who often knows more than all the characters combined, and they are the spookiest things to be found in this telling.

The guys are a funny lot, mainly portrayed as inept and foolishly obsessed with sex. Dracula himself (Philip Hays) is stereotypical in his minstrel show "white face" and heavy Count Chocula accent. He's effective physically, but plays each scene as knowing where the joke is. The costumes he is given by Lindsay Burns emphasize this with a surprising amount of visual jabs at his obviousness. Lucy's trio of suitors Seward (Ryan Kelly), Quincy (Blake Weir), and Simmons (Jason Duga) appropriately seem baffled and dazzled by the women as they turn vampire on them. Ron Reeder's Van Helsing is as stereotypical as the Dracula he is pursuing, all "Wampire" and necklaces of garlic. They each put a lot of energy into their pursuit of sex and monsters, all the while seeming more and more inept. John Dunn gives the performance of the evening as the tortured Jonathan, the poor realtor driven mad by the Master. He takes the Harker role, and adroitly handles both the Stoker trappings and the Wellman nonsense with great skill. He knows how to make all of this work, and his presence hangs over the play throughout.

It's fun to see Mildred's Umbrella revisit and revamp a production that helped define their aesthetic in the early days. They've focused the company now around women, and Jennifer Decker has refocused this piece to her intentions. The script is still a bit problematic though, and the evening feels uneven in tone despite the efforts of a stellar cast and crew. The dramatic creep of the Stoker monologues contrasted with the silly nonsense of the jokes Wellman throws out make you unsure how to react. But perhaps that is the point of MAC WELLMAN'S DRACULA, something to make you feel uncertain about whether to laugh or take these plights seriously. Sit back and simply enjoy the spectacle of the ladies discovering their sex while the men recoil in horror and sing songs about "hair in the air", and then pretend it all made sense when you wake up in the morning. It's nonsense, both a trick and a treat for Halloween.

MAC WELLMAN'S DRACULA runs through Halloween night at Studio 101 located at 1824 Spring Street. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm with a special 3pm afternoon matinee on the 25th. Tickets can be reserved through the website which provides the link.


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