As the centerpiece of its spring season, Classic Stage Company is presenting a repertory of adaptations of two legendary Gothic horror stories: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in new stage versions. Kate Hamill, go-to playwright for adaptations of 19th century literature, has given her take on Dracula a delightful comic slant. The sexism in the novel has been diluted by making this a feminist revenge fantasy. Turning Doctor Van Helsing, vampire hunter, and Renfield (under the sway of the vampire) into women changes the dynamic quite a bit giving the play a modern viewpoint. Director Sarna Lapine, who has worked with Hamill before on her Little Women and The Scarlet Letter adaptations, keeps the pace brisk and the humor buoyant as the women are given the best of the story.
Although Dracula has been adapted numerous times for both stage and screen, it would not seem to be particularly suited for either as it is told in an epistolary style, using letters, diaries, newspaper clipping and ships’ log entries, while the narrator changes throughout the story. Hamill has simplified the plot, changing some of the character relationships. John Doyle’s minimalist setting with its huge white drapery which is drawn aside to reveal a balcony adds to the Gothic elements on its own, along with Adam Honoré’s atmospheric lighting which occasionally turns the stage red.
The play begins with a pregnant Mina Harker saying farewell to her husband Jonathan, a solicitor who is on his way to Transylvania to do legal work for a Count Dracula he does not know; simultaneously, Renfield, a madwoman who worships Dracula, is finishing the writing in red ink (or is it blood?) of a blasphemous poem parodying the Lord’s Prayer. Jonathan is saved from two female vampires by the count, but finds himself unable to leave the castle.
Next we are back in Britain as Mina visits her friend Lucy Westenra who is engaged to rather dim chauvinistic Doctor Seward, who runs an asylum for the insane where Renfield is locked up. However, Lucy begins seeming very tired and pale every morning, as well as covered in blood. Doctor Seward calls for Doctor Van Helsing a specialist on the London lecture circuit, and is not amused to find that Van Helsing is not only a woman but a hot-blooded American in a cowboy hat. The story eventually becomes a battle for Lucy’s soul, and later that of Jonathan Harker, while Doctor Seward put one obstacle in the way of Van Helsing after another.
As the heroine Mina Harker, Kelley Curran is both feisty and adventurous, also with a wry sense of humor. Jessica Frances Dukes makes Van Helsing, a feminist, into the kind of hunter who would have done well in the Wild West, taking no guff from anyone and not worrying about being perceived as a lady. Author Hamill has a fine time with the crazed Renfield, a very juicy role. Beginning as a thoroughly Edwardian Lady, Jamie Ann Romero as Lucy becomes more sexualized as Dracula takes more and more possession of her.
Matthew Amendt’s Dracula is suave, elegant and cunning. In an uncharacteristically comic role, Matthew Saldivar makes the good doctor a figure of fun, blindered by the male prejudices of his time, while refusing to examine the evidence at his fingertips. Michael Crane is sympathetic as Jonathan Harker as he tries to fight off Dracula and his minions while at the same time slipping further and further into their clutches. Laura Baranik and Lori Laing are suitably sinister as Dracula’s vampire minions; they also appear as members of Doctor Seward’s staff with personalities of their own.
Using Hamill’s cues in her script, Robert Perdziola dresses the cast in whites and beiges making the blood when it shows up all the more dramatic, but at the same time suggesting English high summer. Leon Rothenberg’s eerie sound design adds to the ambiance. Doyle’s minimalistic setting (an occasional bed, a chair, a gravestone, etc.) on the dark stage has the effect of making Lapine’s production look like one of Doyle’s own which works excellently in this adaptation. Michael G. Chin is credited with the fight direction which ratchets up the tension. The Classic Stage Company’s production of Kate Hamill’s Dracula is jolly good fun as it updates the women’s roles to something other than shrinking violets.
Dracula (performed in rotating repertory with Frankenstein through March 8, 2020)
Classic Stage Company
CSC Theatre, 136 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-677-4210 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission