BWW Review: DRACULA at SHAW FESTIVAL
The story of Bram Stoker's DRACULA has been told long enough since the novel's release in 1897 that most everyone is familiar with the famous Prince of Darkness. Numerous films have been made, as early as the silent version NOSFERATU, and a stage version with Frank Langella was lauded nearly 30 years ago on Broadway. The Shaw Festival is presenting a stage version by Poet Laureate of Glasgow, Liz Lochhead. First given in 1985 in Scotland, this overly long stage adaptation is too bogged down in literary detail, and judicious trimming of the Victorian epic seemed necessary to make it palatable for modern day audiences.
Set against the framework of a psychiatrist, Dr . Seward, and his lawyer friend, along with their young brides to be Lucy and Mina, we meet the famed reclusive Count Dracula. His bewitching powers overtake all who encounter him, and the blood sucking begins. With keen references to the joy in eating and female submission, Dracula's powers are capable of mesmerizing his victims, while charming them at the same time. Dr. Seward's treatment of a deranged asylum patient named Renfield sheds light on the lack of treatment available to the insane and at the same time gives glimpses into Renfield's relationship with the Count. When young Lucy becomes afflicted with a strange illness and pallor, Dr. Seward summons his mentor, Dr. Van Helsing, for help. He alone recognizes the illness as a vampire bite and vows to kill the Count.
Allan Louis is a revelation as the mysterious Dracula, shedding most stereotypical gestures while creating an eccentric man who is a controlling menace to be feared by all. Mr. Louis has adopted an accent oozing of Transylvanian blood that made his first meeting with the young lawyer Jonathan Harker appropriately uncomfortable to watch. His close talking posture and innuendos make this character every bit as scary as you would expect. When Harker shows the Count a photo of his fiancee, Mina, and her sister Lucy, the Count makes them his next victims.
Marla McLean as Mina and Cherissa Richards as Lucy were the afflicted sisters, both having to succumb to Dracula's spell. The two epitomize virginal charm and propriety, dressed in white and pale pastels. Their undoing begins with that famed bite and they both are convincing as they were forced to act in a trance, while violently undulating under Dracula's control of their bodies. Ben Sanders was at his best as Harker in the disturbing scene at the castle of Dracula, his slight figure making him prey to the vampire. Martin Happer as Seward finds the right balance of control and exasperation in dealing with Dracula's control over Lucy.
Graeme Somerville fully inhabited the twisted mind of Renfield, every bit the lunatic, writhing and climbing the bars of his cage, fashioned after an actual bird cage, as he is known to eat birds and insects. Steven Sutcliffe as Van Helsing anchored the lunacy as he tried to convince all that the vampire legend was truth and that he must be killed with a stake through the heart.
Director Eda Holmes has done her homework and gets excellent results out of her fine cast. What could be pure melodrama is instead presented with eerie, gritty realness. A fine score by John Gzowski helps to aid the drama. Designer Michael Gianfresco has envisioned a stage full of turning medical screens, gliding metallic curtains and disturbing projections to suggest the entrance of Dracula, accompanied by sound effects of a bat's beating wings. His period costumes were lush for the humans, while his flowing capes and gowns for the Vampire Brides were seductive in bright red.
The biggest challenge with adapting Dracula for the stage is choosing what to include, as there are numerous subplots in the novel that ultimately have to be dispensed with. Lengthy monologues, especially from Mina and Dr. Van Helsing read as direct passages from the novel and grew tiresome, especially in the second Act when the chase to kill the Count takes much longer than is practical on the stage. Due to the familiarity of the story, some elements elicited laughs, such as the strewning of copious garlands of garlic over Lucy's bed. The final tableau with falling rose petals bordered on camp, as Mina now freed from Dracula's spell, morphs from submissive woman to aggressive dominatrix. At near 3 hours, the two act play often struggled to maintain the attention of the audience
DRACULA plays at the Festival Theatre of the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake through October 14, 2017. Contact shawfest.com for more information