Dracula entertains, but seems focused on playing into own hype: review – Toronto Star

Written by Bram Stoker. Adapted by Liz Lochhead. Directed by Eda Holmes. Until October 14 at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queens Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake. ShawFest.com or 905-468-2172.

With a story as ubiquitous as Bram Stokers Dracula the saga that launched the mythology of the vampire we most commonly know today (garlic, mirrors, invitations, etc.) the lure of a good pun is almost too delicious to resist. Irish dramatist Liz Lochhead certainly allows herself room for a veritable fest of puns as she introduces the audience to the vampire himself in her 1985 stage adaptation of Stokers 1897 novel, on now at the Shaw Festival. So forgive us for this obvious line: this production, while slick and stylish and offers an interesting course in tone and content to the Shaw Festival menu, needs more bite.

That introduction to the infamous Dracula that Lochhead dramatizes, played here with hypnotical confidence by Allan Louis, comes about a quarter into this three-hour-long thriller weve already established that Draculas visit from young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Ben Sanders) as professional business, but a trip that Harker was warned not to take by his wealthy fiance Mina (Marla McLean) because of her terrifying dreams.

Mina is already under enough stress, caring for her younger sister Lucy (Cherissa Richards), who suffers from girlish hysteria ever since their father died. But Lucy has also recently become engaged to Dr. Arthur Seward (Martin Happer), an older friend of Harkers who runs a nearby mental hospital, where a particularly troublesome patient named Renfield (Graeme Somerville, a highlight in this challenging role) refuses the hospitals food to instead live off bugs and birds and warns of the impending arrival of his Master who promised him eternal life.

The much-anticipated arrival of Dracula himself into this world is, as decades of Dracula-inspired vampire tales have told us, the charming, resplendent embodiment of repressed deviant desires (especially in Victorian England) sex, opulence, nocturnal living, even perhaps gluttony.

But with Louiss Dracula and his penchant for double-entendres that only he (and the audience, of course, which giggled at lines like It simply wont turn out, in reference to a photograph of Dracula) could possibly understand, hes also a thankful shift in attitude. Hes playful, obviously accustomed to finding amusement in his own unmatched wit, hes charming, hes unflinchingly clear in what he desires and he knows hes going to get it.

On one hand, its enjoyable to see Harker out of his element after scenes of him condescending to Mina and Lucy and bragging with Seward over brandy about his professional and sexual exploits. But, more simply, Dracula is just a more interesting, exciting presence on stage than what Lochhead gives us with the rest of the leading characters.

Almost all avenues of horror can be related back to the repression or threat of female sexuality werewolves, slashers and certainly vampires, with the fangs puncture wounds and the creatures seductive appeal. And Lochheads adaptation places female sexuality front and centre in the Dracula tale: Lucy begins her monthly, bloody visitation just as Dracula sets his sights on her pretty young neck. Both Lucy and Mina are desperate for their paramours to take their virginity, but out of honour, trauma, and the freedom men have to find satisfaction elsewhere, they refuse, which, according to the story, puts them at greater risk of Draculas influence.

In fact, its the absence of Lucys servant Florrie (Natasha Mumba) to meet her own lover that leaves Lucy unattended for her first brush with the vampire. The emphasis on female sexuality is echoed in Michael Gianfrancescos set design, with the recurring use of tall curtains of sheer white fabric or metal chainboth filling the large Festival Theatre stage, while also hinting at the quintessential image of a young heroines gauzy bedroom curtains billowing in the wind, as she sleeps soundly, blissfully unaware of the evil outside her window.

Lochheads parallels between repressed female sexuality, madness, scientific austerity and horror are interesting, if somewhat obvious in 2017. But, even more disappointing, theres little driving Lucy and Mina beyond their sexual drives. The men, too, are underdeveloped and relatively aimless until united by Sewards old professor, Van Helsing (Steven Sutcliffe), arrives with the knowledge needed to defeat the vampire. By that time, despite Sutcliffes adept performance, the second act is mired in exposition, rapid plot development (and some glaring holes along the way), and a quick, unsatisfying conclusion.

Director Eda Holmes creates a gorgeous, brooding atmosphere, using eerie projections by Cameron Davis to illustrate the magical elements of Draculas power, including a mesmerizing, nightmarish sequence in which Dracula chases the protagonists to London. But most often, this Dracula seems more interested in playing into its own hype using vampiric images and tropes commonly known from TV and film, which routinely work less effectively in the theatrical form, to try to scare the audience rather than move them. Honestly, we would have been happier with a few more puns.

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Dracula entertains, but seems focused on playing into own hype: review – Toronto Star

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