KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 20, 2000
Like the legendary vampire himself, the story of Dracula refuses to die. Put a stake through its heart if you will, but the damn thing just won’t go away. Literally thousands of incarnations have reared their bloody heads in the past century. But this new version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, adapted by Lamb’s Players Kerry Meads and Robert Smyth, goes back to the source for its insightful perspective.
This story is not really about vampires and werewolves; it’s about evil. About how when we sit around our collective, communal campfire, there’s always something out there in the dark, something unknowable that stabs us with terror. This new Dracula has no redeeming features; even his purported erudition and sexuality are seriously underplayed. He assumes a rather minor role, with minimal stage-time. The story is all about how the individual and the community confront an unthinkable, inexplicable force of evil. Some turn to science, some to civil law, some to rational thought and some to religion. And in this retelling, you can’t just invoke the icons; when a cross is held up to the vampire, it’s powerless if the bearer can’t back it up with faith.
The theatrical framing device is a trunk filled with memorabilia: the diaries, letters and crosses used by the survivors in combating The Horror. Ultimately, in looking back, the protagonists realize that it was all a shattering, life-changing memory, a tale to be told that no one else would believe. And so they almost gently return the items to the trunk at the end, and put their horrific story to bed.
The Lamb’s production, first viewed on Friday the 13th, under a full moon, was frankly terrifying at times. This is another of the Lambs’ minimalist, magical collaborations — dark, rich, brooding and beautiful. This company trusts its audience to fill in the gaps, recognize the change of scenes and focus attention solely on the characters, the situation and the paralyzing fear. Mike Buckley’s formidable, textural castle is coldly foreboding, and Nathan Peirson’s lighting does it wonderfully eerie justice. Deborah Gilmour Smyth has provided an aptly otherworldly original score, and Jeanne Reith’s costumes are just right.
But it’s Robert Symth’s sharp-eyed direction and his outstanding ensemble that really merit acclaim. Never mind that all but two characters speak American instead of British English, and the two who don’t, the count from Transylvania and the Dutch professor, sound pretty much the same. Trifles. What matters here is the way the suspense builds, the way we’re caught up in the monstrousness of the experience, how closely the story hews to the original, in language and intent.
In the showiest role, that of the asylum inmate Renfield, Tom Stephenson has risen to a level of true artistry. It would have been easy to go over the top, but this Renfield is more than just crazy; with his finely nuanced performance, Stephenson makes him sympathetic, too. His layered portrayal of insanity is most masterful when Renfield tries so desperately to act sane, so that he can be released to head off disaster. A magnificent moment of theater.
With plenty of goblins and demons abroad this season (and that doesn’t even include the election), it’s the right time to revisit “Dracula.” You’ll be ghoulishly glad you did.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.