An old-fashioned transfusion apparatus spurts blood all over the Mercury Theater stage late in Act 1 of Dracula while a cast member tries to drink from it like an errant water fountain. The moment — just one in several in-your-face gruesome sequences — elicited an equal number of groans and laughs from the opening-night audience, a sentiment that carried throughout the show. Directed by Sean Graney, the artistic director of the Hypocrites, Dracula, also adapted by Graney from Timothy F. Griffin's original script and Bram Stoker's story, combines shock and schlock just in time for Halloween.
Set in some nebulous time between the present and the past, the play begins with a visit from Jonathan Harker (Maurice Demus) to the Transylvania estate of one Count Dracula (Breon Arzell), who is looking to purchase real estate in London. In Dracula's lair (an eerie underground bunker designed by John Musial), Harker meets the unhinged Alice Renfield (the wickedly funny Erin Barlow), who warns Harker to return to London before fleeing herself. After a series of frights, the action moves to a London insane asylum, where Harker's fiancée Mina (Aurora Real de Asua) awaits his return, along with her bosom friend Lucy (Janelle Villas). Lucy herself is being courted by asylum director Dr. Seward (John Taflan) and Dr. Van Helsing (Robert McLean), the fanatic scholar of vampirism.
Mina and Lucy are a pair of strong-willed modern women — a detail that's hard to miss, as the script mentions it explicitly again and again. Blood-sucking as a metaphor for toxic masculinity is not a bad idea, but its realization is heavy-handed and clumsy. By the time Dracula monologues about his plans for the subjugation of women worldwide, the threat is downright anemic.
As the unfortunate Lucy, Villas is a gifted physical comedian. Taflan and McLean play the good doctors Seward and Van Helsing as a couple of Muppets, the rubber-faced Taflan bouncing off of the indignant McLean to excellent comedic effect. In the title role, Arzell is powerfully funny but not very sensual. In fact, this sex-positive Dracula features some of the least sexualized vampires around. The true star of the show is Real de Asua, whose performance as Mina is acerbically comedic even while delivering the preachiest non sequiturs.
Samantha C. Jones's costumes further emphasize the contemporary themes by combining modern pieces with Victorian and Edwardian silhouettes. The horror unfolds during an unrelenting maelstrom, vividly brought to life by Joe Griffin's sound design and Mike Durst's colorful lighting. The mix of camp and horror is not particularly well-balanced in the play's lengthy opening scene in Transylvania, but once the blood starts gushing in London, the play finds its footing and the laughs and thrills come quickly and plentifully — thanks in part to the gore and violence, designed by Jon Beal. Beal's work hits the sweet spot between kitschy and genuinely shocking. To that end, this Dracula is not for children, or particularly sensitive cat lovers.
The Hypocrites' take on Stoker's spooky tale brings a lot to the table, including a well-cast ensemble and several good, vital commentaries on the modern landscape of gender and autonomy. The play succeeds when it uses humor to make those points, but when things take a turn for the solemn, Dracula loses its teeth.
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