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Undead, But Barely

Chamberlayne Actors Theatre scares up just a few spooky moments in “Dracula.”

The main problem here is that everyone has heard this story a dozen times. The adaptation by John Balderston and Hamilton Deane treads ground so familiar that more than half of the show’s dialogue is rendered unnecessary. To her credit, Berlin deals with this significant burden by expertly streamlining the show to a swift 90 minutes (not counting intermission), hacking away most of a subplot involving Dracula’s first victim, Nina. So the play begins with Lucy (Molly Hood) already stricken by a debilitating malady that has her father, Dr. Seward (Elliot Eisenberg), and fiancé, Jonathan Harker (Bob Murphy), deeply concerned.

Vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (Todd Schall-Vess) soon arrives, and the truth about their mysterious neighbor, Count Dracula (Ira Bishop), begins to unfold. Coppola had a hard time jazzing up these expositional interludes using movie magic, and Berlin doesn’t do much better using stagecraft. Still, she does pull off a couple of neat bat tricks, and while her big finish garners more guffaws than gasps, it is still pretty ingenious.

The best moments of Berlin’s production are thanks to actors who commit to the content, regardless of the melodrama. Though uniformly capable, the cast has two standouts in Jonathan Hardison as the lunatic Renfield and Hood as the conflicted Lucy. Hardison makes Renfield’s mounting desperation palpable; his violent breakdowns are the scariest part of the production. As Lucy falls under the vampire’s spell, Hood navigates the transition from nervously distressed to deliciously seductive with assurance, her bloodlust plain by the play’s end.

Schall-Vess commands respect as Van Helsing, and Murphy natters fastidiously as Harker. Lin Heath’s gray and Gothic set frames the action nicely and lighting designer Alan Armstrong delivers some surprisingly subtle effects; watch for the flickering orange glow illuminating the ranting Renfield early-on.

But as much as anything else, it’s the man in the black cape that sets the tone for this show, and Bishop’s neck-biter is consistent with the rest of the play. He’s not half bad but a bit less than brilliant. Bishop has a fine growl when angered but doesn’t project nearly enough sexy malevolence. While Count Dracula is destined for hell, this is a production in purgatory, never quite transcendent enough for a higher place. S

“Dracula” takes place at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, 319 N. Wilkinson Road, through Nov. 8. Tickets cost $10. Call 262-9760.

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