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The Creep Factor 

by Michael Bowen


Vampires make me giggle. I mean, it's so silly, this business of the carnival freak in the black cape: "I am Count Dracula," he pronounces, "and you are helpless before me. By biting into your neck, we are engaging in symbolic sex, and yet you will share in none of the guilt -- none at all."


Make no mistake, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) was all about late Victorian sexual repression. His tale offered not so much the visceral appeal of gory detail (blood 'n' guts) as escape from sexual shame (blood 'n' sluts). When the poor helpless damsel gets bitten -- she was asleep, the window was open, it couldn't possibly have been her fault -- blood isn't the only bodily fluid she was looking to exchange (though surely she would blush to admit it). To be overpowered, by a count, to have wild, unrestrained, bedspring-breaking sex right there in the privacy of mademoiselle's boudoir -- why, it outdoes the appeal of any Harlequin bodice-buster today. And further, to have none of it, none of it at all, be her own fault -- why, it was every Victorian girl's dream.


Still has its appeal today, too, though tens of millions of women no longer require a self-induced guilt trip in order to enjoy the pleasures of lovemaking.


Unfortunately, in the current production of Dracula at Interplayers (through Nov. 6), Director Nike Imoru and her cast haven't decided whether to snort at, celebrate or be seduced by the legends of the vampire. (It's possible to do all three, even within a single show, but you have to send clear signals to your audience.)


The Interplayers production of Dracula isn't scary, isn't playing for laughs (even if it deserves a few) and doesn't attempt to do or say anything new about vampires. So what is it doing or trying to accomplish?


Apparently, it's trying to be museum theater -- you know, a recreation of the way the vampire mystique must've played onstage back in 1927, when American journalist John L. Balderstone rewrote British actor Hamilton Deane's version of the Dracula tale to make it palatable for Broadway audiences.


In the title role, Michael Maher is evidently trying to channel the spirit of Bela Lugosi. But something got garbled in the transmission. Maher clomps about the stage awkwardly as the Prince of Transylvanian Darkness, gargling as he talks. He's Bela on a drunken bender.


Stoker's original conception of Dracula resembled a slobbering medieval freak in Fu Manchu and battle helmet. For the stage version, Deane and Balderston realized that Count Dracula had to be suave enough that folks could plausibly invite him into their parlors for a nice visit.


But Maher overdoes the freakishness while underplaying the allure. He strikes poses, contorts his limbs and, while moving in for a snack on the unsuspecting heroine's pale and unprotected throat, performs odd little arm-waving dances.


Because they had success with last year's Halloween play, The Turn of the Screw (a much more psychological and sophisticated kind of thriller), it's easy to understand why another theatrical creep-fest might have sounded good when Interplayers was assembling its season.


But by presenting a piece of museum theater, Imoru's show simply underscores that what was shocking or frightening 80 years ago seems a little silly today. It doesn't connect with our lives.


There are some engaging facets of this show, of course. Damon Abdallah is genuinely creepy as an asylum inmate who eats flies and spiders, and David Seitz injects some humor into the scientist role of Van Helsing.


But the mix of styles and attitudes in this show make it not dreary-chilling but dreary-tedious. The show can't seem to decide whether it wants to frighten, amuse or disturb us. Maher's doing camp, Seitz uses quirks and self-mockery to humanize his Sherlock Holmes-style hero, Abdallah's character is written, somewhat confusingly, to dart in and out of sanity. The servants provide comic relief, but then the young lovers are oh-so-earnest.


As the concerned boyfriend of poor anemic Lucy, John Ulman is required to coo lines like, "My darling, in my eyes you are purity itself." Later, in vengeful mode, he rages: "We will find this thing that has fouled your life, destroy him and send his soul to burning hell, and it shall be by my hand." He delivers such speeches with a face as straight as his ramrod back. In a thankless role, Ulman is earnest and convincing. I'm sure he deserves some kind of award.


If it's the bejabbers you want scared out of you, this show won't bejab you very often. Oh, there are a couple of moments. At one point, three men enter a crypt with lanterns held aloft, only to discover ... unspeakable evil! Inhuman horrors!


Yeah, it's that kind of play.





Maybe horror doesn't work onstage for the same reason that farce doesn't work onscreen: You need to be in the room, present when the laughter starts to snowball, for a farce to really get going. It's OK if we realize in mid-guffaw that we're in a theater -- those silly people up onstage can't hurt me anyway.


Conversely, horror is involving: To get spooked, really Blair Witch spooked, I need to think that Dracula could pop up out of his casket and grab me by the throat right now.


From the 1920s through the '50s, Lugosi could get away with being freaky in the role; Frank Langella and others portrayed the count as a suave '70s womanizer. (It's the Transylvanian Sexual Revolution, baby.) So what's the equivalent now? How could Dracula be updated for today?


Perhaps a fanatic who believes that doing things the vampire way really is sanctioned by God. He must chomp on throats, he feels compelled to increase the numbers of the undead. Against the living, Dracula has declared jihad. He is a terrorist with fangs who can fly directly into our living rooms and assault our innocent people.


Now I'm not saying that Dracula needs to resemble Osama. What I am saying is that theater classics are living treasures. They need the fresh blood of updating or they die. It doesn't promote a living theater to do Julius Caesar in togas anymore: If Shakespeare's tragedy is only about the events of 44 B.C., then it's just a boring history lesson. Some people still think they can solve problems by killing others. That's why Shakespeare remains relevant.


America likes its monster stories during times of terror, whether it was '50s Godzilla and the fear of nuclear holocaust or something else today, with Osama and his henchmen on the loose. So Dracula could be updated. We still confront evil; we're still leery of our own desires.





Publication date: 10/21/04

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