This is the time of year for unexpected shocks and tales of spirits risen from the dead–last weekend’s State-Carolina game springs to mind–so it seemed only appropriate for this column to take in Raleigh Little Theatre’s Dracula. Haskell Fitz-Simons’s production is a mixed bag, but it does feature a pair of fine performances by Jack Prather as the demented Renfield and Corie Berkemeyer as the undead count’s intended squeeze, Lucy. It also demonstrates that John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane’s creaky 1927 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel still has a surprising amount of blood in its veins.
It’s a wonder their script ever had any life at all. Stoker’s 400-plus-page novel, with its shifting locales, bloody violence and supernatural effects, is a work that couldn’t be dramatized in anything like its full scope until Hollywood entered the computer age. (Francis Ford Coppolla directed the most faithful version to date, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in 1992.) To make their job even harder, Balderston and Deane made no effort to escape the well-made theatrical conventions of their day: three acts, realistic sets and enough exposition to keep even the slowest spectator up to speed on the action–or lack thereof.
Nevertheless, Stoker’s story is powerful enough to break through, as you already know if you’ve seen the famous 1931 film with Bela Lugosi, which uses the Balderston-Deane script almost verbatim. Jonathan Demers, who plays Dracula in RLT’s production, is no Lugosi: He’s a big, lantern-jawed guy whose menace has an ineradicable air of thuggishness about it, which doesn’t seem like the count’s style at all. (Demers also suffers from a make-up job that stops abruptly at his chin, exposing a conspicuously un-pallid neck.) But thuggish menace is better than none, and there’s no doubt that this is a character you wouldn’t want to meet in the dark.
Other crucial (pun intended) performances suffer from the same sense of not-quite-rightness. Eric Devitt’s vampire slayer, Van Helsing, is authoritative but far too normal for someone in his line of work; there’s no sense that a lifetime spent hunting the undead has turned him into something almost as monstrous as his quarry. Rob Jenkins pushes all the right melodramatic buttons as Lucy’s fiancé, the noble, anguished Jonathan Harker, but can’t overcome the impression that he’s an essentially comic actor trying to pass himself off as a romantic lead. John Adams, as Dr. Seward, has the opposite problem: He’s physically right for the role of Lucy’s father, but he underlines the character’s straight-laced cluelessness so broadly that it undercuts the reality of the situation. Assuming, of course, that a situation involving vampires has any reality.
Which brings us to the question that hangs over the whole production: Just how seriously are we supposed to take these goings-on, anyway? Director Fitz-Simons seems to have concluded that present-day audiences won’t swallow Deane and Balderston straight, but he hasn’t gone all the way over into Irma Vep-style camp, either. The result is a mixture that sometimes works as pure melodrama and sometimes dilutes its own power with bits of obvious hamminess, like Demers’s obviously Lugosian accent.
I suspect RLT’s Dracula might have ratcheted up the fright factor if it jumped headfirst into its own staginess instead of commenting on it tongue-in-cheek. As evidence, I offer the aforementioned performances by Prather and Berkemeyer. His thrashing, giggling Renfield is simultaneously over-the-top and pathetic–and, like the villains in the classic Disney cartoons, genuinely frightening. Her Lucy, a platinum-blonde vision in Fay Wray curls, has the same mixture of heightened expression built on a core of real emotion, whether she’s trembling with fear or trying to sink her budding fangs into her fiancé. When they were center-stage last Saturday, you could have heard a pin drop–and they were good, scary fun to boot.