Many and varied are the stage adaptations of Bram Stoker‘s famous novel. Most famous of course is the Balderston-Deane version that brought stardom to Bela Lugosi, Ted Miller’s Count Dracula, the Frank Wildhorn musical (perhaps most famously done in Japan with a female Count), even Orson Wells’ radio adaptation. Theatre 68 (which produces works for both New York and Los Angeles) has just mounted a brand new version, an explicitly “feminist” re-telling of Dracula.
Let us start with the second question, because that determines the answer to the first. Brutally, and many have noted this, there’s a strong sexist attitude in many a vampire tale and in Dracula especially–so much so that the novel has proven relatively easy to adapt into a porn format! Stoker’s tale seems steeped in the kind of semi (or sometimes overt) misogyny of his age. This dovetails also into the fact so many versions of the story exist, one wonders how to make a new one? Playwright Jayce Johnson focused on this misogyny and make no mistake avoided any overly simple answers, which makes this play disturb as well as entertain.
The main character turns out to be Mina, who has both the first and last lines on stage. Fiancee, then wife to the first of Dracula’s victims–Jonathan Harker–plus very best friend to his second–Lucy Westenra–she becomes simulateously Dracula’s last victim as well as the ultimate architect of his defeat. But Johnson delves beneath this surface, bringing out the complex and often unpleasant facts of life in Victorian England (as well as today, more often than we admit). For one thing, the unrelenting premise of a woman’s destiny is to be a wife and mother–Mina proves a True Believer in this (far more than the flightier Lucy), her disillusionment both steady and brutal. Even a female Renfield warns her what lies ahead, for anyone who sees this life for what it is–a cage.
Against this backdrop, Van Helsing becomes less a genuis and more a violent bigot. Dracula himself is no less a dominating male figure (as Mina only too clearly eventually sees) but at least he offers something more-or-less real, an intense eroticism that feels free even if it isn’t.
However, while all this bodes well for a genuine modern reimagination of this classic, the script contains some flaws. The biggest is how Dracula himself remains a cypher, if anything a chameleon as far as his desires and personality go. Somehow that never quite ‘gels’ into a real character. A similar problem attends several other characters–Seward and Quincey barely hint at being individuals, while Lucy does little more than lust after Quincey and try (unsuccessfully) to rebel against her mother. This last makes us dislike Mrs. Westenra but not like Lucy–so we don’t mourn her. Why should we?
But an overall lack of specifics keeps getting in the way, sometimes to absurd lengths. The greatest such involved giving Lucy a blood transfusion. Yes, that she’s being forced to receive the blood of men–men not even of her choice–can serve as a powerful metaphor. Turning it into a symbolic gang bang was going too far–especially since it only barely qualified as a symbol! The image of three men tying Lucy down and stabbing her with syringes while she screamed yanked me out of the story. Ditto Van Helsing’s line about “three men at once–that should do it.”
A good comparison would be how the “treatment” of Renfield–starvation and isolation, with the threat of surgery–achieved its objective without becoming actually ridiculous (although a “lobotomy” was not invented for many decades after the events of the story).
Mind you, the “open” and largely tragic ending does pack a wallop and deserves praise. But some rather large chunks of the play need some work.