Dracula at the IRT Review: Beautiful but Defanged

Vampires are everywhere these days: on TV, in movies and on tween bookshelves everywhere. But long before vampires sparkled or came out of the coffin, there was Dracula. Ever since Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel about the good count was released, vampires have held a special sway over us. They represent our fear of death and hope for immortality, the power of blood to give or take life and of course, sexual repression.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s current staging of Dracula stays fairly true to Stoker’s Victorian drama. Playwright Steven Dietz had a difficult job on his hands to turn the novel, composed of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, into a cohesive and linear play. He succeeds well, utilizing effective flashbacks and side-by-side scenes happening concurrently in London and Transylvania. The script cuts out most of the boring parts of Stoker’s stodgy novel and gives us a play that’s as action-packed as any movie.

The script is supported by brilliant staging. The lighting is eerie and ominous, choosing to light many of the actors from below, giving them a demonic and other-worldly appearance. Trap doors are used to excellent effect, and deliver a few good scares.

Unfortunately, while the show looks fantastic and is well-written, the direction lacks subtlety. There is constant shouting when there should be whispers. The few genuine moments of fear are blunted by comic relief, mostly in the form of Renfield (Dietrich Gray). Renfield is the pathetic servant of the count, a madman who eats flies and speaks in riddles. Instead of being portrayed as sympathetic, frightening or just plain sad, everything is played for camp. The problem even extends to the title character. In one scene, where Dracula (Wade McCollum) menaces Jonathan Harker (Jason Bradley) in his castle, he comes off less as the terrifying bloodsucker of legend than as an eccentric but harmless older relative as he hollered and snickered his way through classic lines.

But parts of the production still shine. Special kudos go out to Jason Bradley as hero Jonathan Harker, who conveys the horror of the count and his castle with true terror, and pulls off some impressive physical acting while under the count’s hypnotic thrall.

In all, the production’s downfall is in its refusal to give into its darker desires and be truly scary. Every time we veered into horror territory, the show checked its hand and wandered into safer waters.

The show is worth a look for its impressive staging alone, and might be a great introduction to the theater and to the Dracula story for older kids. But the play would have benefited from letting Dracula be what he was meant to be: an expression of the best and worst of human nature. Delve into the darkness, and see if we truly come out unscathed.

Dracula runs through October 1, 2011, and tickets can be purchased at irtlive.com. Reviewer’s tickets were provided courtesy of the Indiana Repertory Theatre.