Movies and TV have claimed a lot of vampire/zombie territory, but horror works in any medium. While it may not provoke screams, the University of Vermont Theatre Department production of Dracula has enough hidden crypts, lightning bolts, creepy fog and ghostly moonlight rippling through curtains to bathe viewers in moody menace. Never underestimate the power of stage effects, which, like magic tricks, can seem more startling because they happen right in front of the viewer.
Horror's allure involves a stimulating balance of predictability and surprise. However hideous the danger, it follows tidy rules but strikes when unexpected. The Dracula story is not designed to convince us that vampires exist, only that fear does. It follows the formulaic suspense structure of any good horror story by strewing victims in Dracula's path with only luck or their wits to save them.
The UVM production plays it straight. Steven Dietz's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula is filled with affected Victorian language, but director Sarah Carleton anchors the production in sincerity. Investing the mannered speech and metaphors for sex with seriousness is a challenge, as Stoker was after a kind of moral horror that simply doesn't register with contemporary attitudes about gender roles. The easy way out would be a tongue-in-cheek mockery of outdated manners. But Carleton doesn't flinch, and the actors show a complete commitment to their characters.
Stoker's epistolary novel is built from multiple points of view. Adapted for theater, it becomes something of a three-ring circus to link the story lines. The ringmaster is Renfield, a vampire victim who gobbles flies and spiders for their blood. As a patient in the good Dr. Seward's asylum in London, he's an upstage presence for much of the play, breaking in with occasional action of his own as he struggles to escape and find his vampire master.
Count Dracula has been undead so long he's nearly exhausted the blood supply in Transylvania and will have to travel despite the need to sleep each day in the soil of his birthplace. He hires attorney Jonathan Harker to find him a property in London, and soon both men head there, Harker to return to his fiancée, Mina, and Dracula in search of new victims.
Mina and her friend Lucy are young and innocent, precisely Dracula's target demographic. Seward proposes to Lucy. She's awash in suitors and says no; he gallantly offers lifelong friendship if he can't have love. Seward proves a loyal protector when Dracula materializes out of the London fog. Harker, Seward and his colleague, vampire-slaying professor Van Helsing, strive to save her. Soon enough, Mina is in peril, as well.
More than the plot or the performances, this production relies on overall theatricality for its impact. Carleton's use of space and visual effects adds a top note of spectacle to scenes that are played, in essence, realistically. When it's time to drive a stake into Lucy's heart, Van Helsing, Seward and Harker don't camp it up. They get the job done with grim determination and the occasional shudder, not showboating. But Lucy is carried to her crypt wearing deathly pale makeup that reveals a spectacular appetite for blood, and dies in a glow of green light.
Stoker's novel is built on a big metaphor for sexuality, and this production covers some, but not all, of the terrain. When sinuous vixens confront Harker in Dracula's castle, Harker is appalled, not sexually stimulated. But Carleton taps the sexual undercurrent elsewhere, and the rapture of blood-drinking osculation couldn't be portrayed with more ravenous overtones.
Sarah Kolozsvary portrays the full arc of Lucy's character, from naïve girl to gluttonous vampire. Her bold physicality makes a vivid counterpoint to the ornate dialogue. Kolozsvary plunges her head girlishly into her pillows when sharing her innocent secrets with Mina and later conveys the full sexual charge that Dracula elicits from her. She is radiant throughout, whether her eyes are shining from virtue or blood lust.
As Mina, Caitlin Durkin evokes the Victorian extreme of the infantilized female who dares not feel desire. Yet when Lucy notes that Mina's courtship with Harker seems a little cold, Durkin reveals a little edge of lust.
Thomas Rattigan has a keen intensity as Harker and does an excellent job showing the stages of his mental disintegration in the weird world of Dracula's castle. Sam Hall is all-in as Renfield, combining antic glee with strong and surprising physical movement, all designed to keep the audience off balance.
Christian DeKett uses a deep voice and a ramrod straight posture to make Dracula a forceful presence. His first scenes are played as an aging man, but once he's found new victims, DeKett shows him physically rejuvenated.
Scenic designer Rosalind Isquith fills the three-quarter playing space with visually interesting multilevel platforms. She hangs a magnificent gauzy curtain to delineate a bedroom wall upstage, then pins a moon in the dark blue sky. Creative stagecraft produces a series of settings in the adaptable space, from Dracula's castle to a ship to a graveyard.
Martin A. Thaler transports us to 1897 with richly detailed costumes, executed in calming Victorian tweeds. He adds dashes of excitement that suit the characters, such as a boldly cut suit for Harker and billowing nightclothes for Lucy. Dracula's red vest and cape are restrained for a dignified count who likes to stay in the shadows but can't resist showing off his power.
Dracula is as much mood as story. The experience of any horror tale is wishing away what's awful yet knowing it's what you came for. The suspense lies in when and how, not if. This production rewards the audience with big effects and performances that never stray from a Victorian sensibility.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Passion Bites"
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.