The ‘immortal’ Count returns, this time with a female Dr. Van Helsing in pursuit.
By Bruce Goodrich
Irish writer Bram Stoker (1847-1912) perhaps didn't quite realize what he had unleashed in 1897 with his now classic Gothic tale of horror, "Dracula." It vividly caught the public’s imagination, entering popular culture and never letting go, on the page and, years later, in silent film versions ("Nosferatu" in 1922), sound film versions, beginning with the 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi, and continuing with countless iterations of the story and character through the years, on stage and film, serious, humorous, parodied, terrific, dreadful, and everything in between, right through to today’s Dracula iterations ("Renfield"), and vampire incarnations ("Twilight’s" brooding teens, and on), which continue to thrill, chill, amuse, and beguile.
The first play version of “Dracula” (1924), by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based upon Stoker’s novel, premiered on Broadway in 1927. Frank Langella starred in a hit, Tony-winning, stage version of the 1927 script on Broadway (1977) and in a subsequent film version in 1979, with Sir Laurence Olivier as Dr. Van Helsing.
Neil LaBute, the playwright for the WCP production, is particularly known for his 2001 play, “The Shape of Things,” (and its 2003 film version) also “The Distance from Here” (2003), as well as the films “In the Company of Men” (1997) and “Your Friends and Neighbors” (1998). Much of his work is centered on the interplay between men and women, gender play, and power dynamics.
"Dracula" (2019), billed as a “free adaptation” by Mr. LaBute, while staying basically true to the structure and language of the novel, utilizes a fiercely independent female Dr. Van Helsing (underscoring LaBute’s strong feminist bent), an explorer and scientist who becomes the foil to the undead Count.
LaBute wrote and directed the film, “House of Darkness,” in 2022, which riffs on the long-fabled brides of Dracula, giving us a modern-day social twist, with that version's Mina toying with a young man named Hap, back at her family’s country house after meeting him at a bar.
The Play Reading Committee at WCP, as a body, paralleled LaBute’s feminist ideology, according to producer Jim June, which made the choice of this version of “Dracula” particularly appealing. Though the play was originally scheduled for a Halloween week opening, unavoidable schedule changes precluded this. However, WCP’s audiences have always been attracted to thrillers and mysteries, no matter the season.
The director, Brandon Ferruccio, when asked if he wanted to direct a thriller, expressed interest in “Dracula,” but not the 1927 original, but a version which left more to the imagination and with a modern sensibility, hence Neil LaBute’s.
Ferruccio and his design team have enhanced the proceedings by creating a black box abstract setting and costumes with a nod to the 1890s but with more of a modern ‘steampunk’ sensibility. And, to keep it grounded in some semblance of reality, there are “no bats, no creaking doors and coffin lids, and no strobes. It has more of an 'American Horror Story' vibe.”
Also, it was important to Ferruccio to underscore Dr. Van Helsing’s agency as a woman. Countering the usual lore, Count Dracula is now threatened by a female pursuer, which, as per Ferruccio, “limits his power.” The young lovers, Mina and Jonathan, are also given a bit of a turnabout, as Mina is far more strong-willed than usually portrayed.
To create a relaxed and safe environment, an Intimacy Coordinator, now employed routinely for all manner of theatre and film productions, was utilized to help navigate those moments which have pronounced ‘familiar’ and sexual qualities.
Ferruccio feels strongly that the closeness of WCP’s 99-seat space will enhance the mystery and foreboding of the material, making it ‘scary’ simply by the nature of the physical environment.
With all that, the powerful allure of the Count and Vampire legends has not dimmed, 126 years since the appearance of the novel. Not to mention the hundreds of years prior to that, with all the attendant history and folklore of the undead.
“Maybe it’s the darkness in my own soul that always secretly roots for the Count… …even in such delicious new twists on the myth by (other contemporary) auteurs. But the undead are resilient creatures and hard to kill—they rise again and chase us through our dreams and into the night. That’s what I really love about them (and Dracula himself): they don't give up. Vampires aren’t quitters, no matter how much they’d like to be. They are fated to try and try and try again and that’s how I feel about writing in general—it’s something I love and hate and fear and desire and I can never give it up, no matter what happens to me in ‘this’ life.”
Neil LaBute - June, 2019
Bruce Goodrich is a scenic and costume designer, with many NYC, SoCal and regional credits, as well as being an educator, actor and writer. He is the screenwriter for “Mapplethorpe,” (2018) starring Matt Smith, developed at Sundance, and directed by Ondi Timoner.
Westminster Community Playhouse
7272 Maple Street, Westminster, CA 92863
November 3 - 19, 2023
(949) 650-5269, www.wcpstage.com