October contains Halloween, and as a result theatre-goers with a taste for the gothic can look forward to productions of Dracula. These vary from the Balderson-Deane classic (which made Bela Lugosi famous) to such fresh takes as last year’s “feminist” version or an adaptation on roller skates or for that matter more than a few musicals. This year a new take emerges from the Loft Ensemble in Los Angeles, California–Dracula: Blood Before Dawn written and directed by Raymond Donahey.
The inevitable question comes up–how to do Bram Stoker‘s novel in some fresh new way? Essentially what Donahey choose to do was take the novel as a seed, shifting things around in a new configuration. Not exactly unheard-of! Indeed in broad terms this pretty much describes nearly any version one can imagine, from the earliest to most recent. But this one does attempt to explore ideas of character, science, religion, free will, compromise and others. Not as a lecture, but rather in the far more interesting way of asking questions.
In this version, Dracula comes across as an infiltrator, the new neighbor who charms and questions people like Jack Seward and Arthur Holmwood. He uses his mental powers to gain a tour of the former’s asylum, thus gaining access to his female slave Mary (a surrogate for Renfield). More he takes part in a debate between Lucy’s two suitors over Darwin’s Theory of Evolution–interestingly, this lord of the undead proves an atheist who sees himself merely as the newest, better form of humanity. Magneto, in other words. Yet not, for this Dracula took on that role with reluctance, after seeing who-knows-how-many cures for his condition.
The context of this Count’s invasion redefines Lucy and Mina as well. For one of the first (perhaps only) times outside of porn, this script has the two girls as lovers. Harker, we learn, is Mina’s brother rather than fiancee–the latter being a suffragette who has perhaps the most startling (if logical) reaction to learning vampires exist. Moral outrage–that a being with godlike power such as Dracula has not changed the world for the better. In this, she does not ignore her rage and grief at the loss of both brother and beloved, but try to find a positive from the negative.
All of which sounds terribly academic and dry, but Donahey blends all this with as much “action” as seems possible. A sapphic love (not sex) scene, a fight amid search for clues at Carfax, a race across the English countryside with slaughtered innocents in its wake, a battle with gypsies, even a sword fight between the two aristocrats of the group–Dracula and Holmwood (no surprise the actual warlord wins that one). Through it all we have a remarkably vigorous Van Helsing, one motivated by (among other things) deeply personal revenge. Dracula slew his grandfather, drove his father insane. He longs to destroy the creature and frankly gloats over his eventual victory.
Honestly, the blend of the two doesn’t always work. The primary characters–Dracula, Mina, Seward, Van Helsing–get all the complexity and emotional depth. Secondary ones–Lucy and Arthur especially–end up almost cardboard cutouts. In practice this means the actors have a wide latitude, if only they take advantage of same. Frankly this makes for such an interesting take on the classic I hope it gets plenty more productions, a few moderate-sized flaws notwithstanding.