Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dracula: Blood Before Dawn (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay, I loves me a good vampire story, and every Halloween I eagerly look forward to new productions of Dracula as well as any other vampire play in this theatre-filled metropolis!  Twice I was even the author of same (end blatant plug).

This year the Loft Ensemble in Sherman Oaks gives us Dracula: Blood Before Dawn.  Written and directed by Raymond Donahey, the first thing that really stuck in my mind was how he took Bram Stoker's novel and did something original with it.

Honestly, that is harder than it sounds.  For decades every single attempt at dramatizing this story felt the shadow of Bela Lugosi, then for a time Christopher Lee.  Since 1992 it seems as if the Francis Ford Coppola film had such influence.

Here at least we see something new!

Part of this consists of re-arranging certain details.  Mina (Ainsley Peace) becomes Jonathan Harker's (Mick Ignis) sister rather than fiancee, allowing her to be Lucy's (Lauren Sperling) lesbian lover (as well as the Victorian equivalent of a Feminist--which ironically in the novel she denies while behaving as if she were).  In the novel Dr. Seward (Paul Romero) is older than Holmwood (Jefferson Reid) while here they are contemporaries--more they argue quite a bit between the tried and true tradition versus the ways of science.  This particularly comes out in debates over evolution.

Credit Shane Tometich
Interestingly our Dracula (Matt Gorkis) proves to be an atheist, one who regards himself as the next step in evolution.  Yet at the same time, while glorying in his power, he proves bitter at his condition having tried every way he could imagine to cure himself.

Now this is all good stuff!  Under the circumstances one might think (as some have) that the tale should become a warning against science and trumpeting faith.  But no.  The whole show avoids such simplicity, not least by showing a Van Helsing (Marz Richards) firmly convinced vampires are but science we do not as yet understand.  But then, he also yearns for revenge.  This Van Helsing's grandfather died at Dracula's hand, while his father lost his mind.

Credit Shane Tometich
On top of all that, Renfield is transformed into a woman, Mary (April Morrow) the only survivor of the ship which brought Dracula to England. As ever, Renfield/Mary remains one of the juiciest of roles--as Gollum is to Lord of the Rings, so this character is to Bram Stoker's classic.

An ensemble portray mental patients, gypsies and the like--Marian Gonzalez, Victoria Anne Greenwood, Alex Fream, and Bree Pavey.  The result expands the story outward from what most theatrical versions do (for, let us be fair, perfectly logical reasons).  Now, while all this is good and fun and worthy of praise, I"m going to mention a few things that aren't equal to the rest.  For one thing, the supporting characters really are nothing but walk-ons, which is a shame.  For another, plenty of tiny anachronisms creep into the tale--even to the point where Holmwood quotes modern American Creationists in arguing with his friend Seward.   In terms of performance, I found Van Helsing as written more compelling than as played--simply because I find anger on stage one of the most common and boring choices.  When Richards is not being angry, his Van Helsing becomes far more compelling.  And while Sperling is a very charming performer, her Lucy as written has little or no personality.  One wonders why Mina fell in love with her.

Credit Shane Tometich
While I regard this criticisms as valid, I also feel compelled as well to offer praise.  Too many versions of Dracula play the whole story as melodrama (often with dash or two of pure camp).  Not here!  In fact there's quite a lot of nuance pretty much everywhere one looks, up to and including the ending which is anything but what one expects.  Or at least what I expected.  Because at heart this version isn't about an undead fiend being defeated, or an anti-hero coming to the end of his ways, or for that matter long-lost lover re-united across oceans of time.  What instead we find is the story is that of Mina Harker herself, whose defeat of (or defeat by) Dracula is just part of her history.  The ending proves open, a little surprising, and containing rather more hope than one might expect overall.

Dracula: Blood Before Dawn plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm at the Loft Ensemble 13442 Ventura Blvd. (across the street from The Psychic Eye), Sherman Oaks CA 91423 until November 20, 2016.

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