There have been so many adaptations, off-shoots and interpretations of Bram Stoker’s 19th century gothic classic that one could easily lose count. And given late Victorian-era attitudes and characterisations, it is not surprising that a disproportionate number of spoofs and parodies have hit the stage and screen. After all, it’s always good sport to make fun of another era’s manners and morals. So it’s no wonder the puns come fast and furious amongst the cast of South Simcoe Theatre’s upcoming production of Dracula when they relax during rehearsal breaks. And why not? There’s such much delicious material to sink your teeth into. Oops! Let’s not continue along that vein!
pictured above: Christian Petrozza as ‘Dracula’
Dracula: The Ultimate Bad Boy
Dracula deserves its place amongst the great stories of all time. Just as we know how the story ends in Shakespearean classics such as MacBeth or historical tragedies like the Titanic, we revel in the re-telling, over and over again.
What is at the heart of this enduring attraction to the evil Count Dracula? Director Michael Leach has a theory. “Eroticism: He has been romanticised, eroticised more than any of the other monsters, like for example Frankenstein and the various mummies. Although he represents pure evil, Dracula has been made sexy. In Stoker’s book, he is not. He is grotesque, revolting, ugly, and repulsive. But in most of the treatments, particularly the movies, he is portrayed as handsome, even hot!”
Dracula the character, and Dracula the story, have both been modified and adapted many times over. Leach will direct the famous 1927 stage version that launched the name Bela Lugosi into the household lexicon, first on stage and then on screen. It is in fact just an adaptation of another adaption. The story, as presented on the Cookstown stage, bears little resemblance to Stoker’s 1897 book; one would be hard pressed to find any dialogue in the book that has survived. Such is the history of this tale of good and evil, right up to the current day. Adaptors have morphed Dracula into whatever shape and form suits their interpretation of evil within the culture of their day.
By necessity, a condensed version of the tale
Leach has a particular goal in mind in order to deliver a performance that not only represents a recreation of what scared the pants off audiences nearly 90 years ago, but one that at the same time is also a severe condensation of Stoker’s original book. “I want to bring the weight back to the individual characters themselves. This 1927 re-write of a 1924 play really only deals with the second half or so of the story contained in Stoker’s book. The play omits entirely the first section of the book that takes place in Europe and sets up later events in England. Obviously anything involving transcontinental travel on stage poses huge problems. Many of the characters do not much resemble those in the book. Some characters have merged into one. Some have names changed. Relationships between certain characters are altered. New characters are introduced, such as ‘Miss Wells’ (Annie Sweeney) and ‘Butterworth’ (Joe Adamick). Because of all this, and because we can’t compete with the blood and gore that can be realistically presented on screen today, my idea is to take the audience back to the magic of theatre and to make it as suspenseful and as character-driven as we possibly can, using the script at hand.”
No easy task today. Theatre patrons actually fainted when seeing this play back in the ‘20’s. But who faints over anything these days?
Is Leach hoping his audiences will ‘buy into’ this concept of a 1920’s theatre re-creation? “It would certainly help.” Leach suggests “If the audience comes to this production without preconceived ideas of the Dracula story, or of who or what Dracula is, and just listens to the story as it unfolds, if they try to simply embrace the concept of this undead, other-worldly creature, then we have been as effective as possible.”
A classic ‘Tie-her-to-the-railway-tracks’ girl? No way!
The characters that have survived this condensed Hamilton & Deane version of the Dracula story represent strong virtues and behavioral types. For example, ‘Lucy Seward’ (Emily Cully), the young daughter of sanitarium owner ‘Dr. John Seward’ (John Bleasby) could easily be dismissed as merely the damsel-in-distress expected in that era. The men do the heavy lifting. Ultimately they are expected to take on the heroic task of hunting down Dracula. Emily wants her character to rise a bit above this level. “I see her as a real person, an innocent girl forced into a series of horrible events and problems. I ask myself ‘How would a real person deal with that?’ At the same time, she’s not weak or vulnerable at all. There are times when she has to be strong, to try to help the men, to deal with issues relating to her prospect for a life while fighting the will of Dracula.”
Likewise, her fiancé ‘John Harker’ (Andrew Nikkanen) represents the young, bold and perhaps foolhardy generation that survived World War 1. He’s boastful, full of bravado, and carries an attitude of indestructibility so typical of younger men; a stark contrast to the older male characters, each of whom are able to grasp the notion of risk assessment.
Empathy for the Devil
However, ‘Lucy’ also demonstrates a humanity that challenges the men around her. She actually holds some sympathy for Dracula and believes his soul has been corrupted by evil that does not necessarily originate within him. Cully observes that because Lucy herself is going through the same evil transformation that has took control of Dracula centuries ago, she realises that free will is something that can be taken away without permission. She can empathise with Dracula on that point if nothing else. Lucy realises that he was at one point a human, after all, perhaps a heroic one.
This empathy can be similarly seen in the character ‘Renfield’, a inmate at the Seward sanatorium. Here is a character under the spell of the Count also undergoing a frightening transformation, one that he fights but cannot fully overcome.
A crazy role from the start
Playing a madman is an extremely challenging role, a role that requires limits in order to avoid a mere caricature. Christopher Perchaluk has taken a thoughtful approach. “The challenge for me has been to find both his moments of insanity and brief moments of clarity. I’ve tried to imagine the internal struggle that Renfield is going through as he wrestles simultaneously with madness, Dracula, and the instinct to be good. He’s fighting all this, and most importantly he is struggling to maintain his soul. He’s going back and forth. Renfield has been pushed to the edge, having to decide whether to allow himself to undergo damnation or to push back as best he can.”
It would be easy to dismiss Renfield as a mere stereotypical lunatic, but this would be making the same mistake one could make with Lucy. In fact, Renfield shows great bravery, rising up against evil despite his limited ability. “At times Renfield is trying desperately to give warnings to the others, but his servitude to Dracula prevents him.” Chris continues, “I would like the audience to feel something for Renfield and to see, through him, that there is a possibility for redemption in everyone, even for those might have casually thrown their souls away.”
An Age when Science challenged Religion
However, the Dracula story represents more than a mere good-versus-evil struggle. There are clear aspects of religion-versus-science, faith-versus-fact, myth-versus-history. To a great degree the heroic character of ‘Professor Van Helsing’, portrayed by Tom Mercer, is part philosopher, part physician and part shaman. His requested visited to Seward’s sanatorium pits Van Helsing’s acceptance of the mystical against Seward’s scientific certainty. It’s an interesting contrast that provides immediate tension to the Dracula riddle. Mercer sees this contrast resulting from the fact that Seward’s experience is limited to England, whereas Van Helsing has travelled to far-reaching and exotic places in the world. “Van Helsing is trying to save Seward’s daughter, but has to convince him over and over again that these vampire events are real and do happen. It gets to the point where although his daughter’s life is under obvious threat, Seward cannot bring himself to accept anything other than a fact-based solution. “
This makes for an interesting set up to the relationship between Seward and Van Helsing. They are old friends with great mutual respect for one another. Yet Seward, the rational medical man, is in a near –panic over his daughter’s health, whereas Van Helsing, the man who brings in an apparent irrational explanation, is the picture of calm and logic. “I see this as a result of Van Helsing simply having a much more open mind. He needs to take control of the situation away from those who are locked into their ideas and at the same time keep everyone else calm by being calm himself.”
Faith: The Ultimate Weapon against Evil
When reminding ourselves of the time at which Dracula was written, we must remember that the late Victorian era was one of huge advances in science and medicine. Mercer points out that although these advances were dramatic and embraced by those with education, to many less-educated members of the public ‘science’ was merely ‘gentrified magic’. Science also represented a threat to religious belief, (and still does today to certain evangelical groups). And so it is curious that Seward, the man of science, retreats from science as he is overwhelmed by the complexity of his daughter’s problems. He instinctively reverts to his Christian faith for support, rather than embracing the mysticism offered by Van Helsing . And in fact, at the end of the day, even Van Helsing himself reaches back to religious symbols as his weapons of last resort.
And Speaking of the Devil…
Given the immense number of Dracula characterisations over the past 90 or more years, how does one begin to develop a style that is not an image of someone else’s? Christian Petrozza has embraced this challenge with the guidance of director Michael Leach. “Michael indicated that he wanted to move away from the characterisation formed largely by Lugosi, with the red sash, the white tie and tails and of course the thick Hungarian accent. It’s been turned into such a pop culture image. But in moving away from that, I wanted to maintain a sinister demeanors. And while seeking a calm and composed personification of evil, I also looked into the countenance and composure of other evil characters beyond Dracula, particularly in terms of voice as observed in renditions of the Phantom of the Opera. I liked the way the Phantom would threaten, how his voice carried weight, how he would look down on others. I wanted creepiness without being camp.”
Revenge versus Redemption
Dracula, whether in Stoker’s book or in serious (ie. non-comic) adaptations such as this 1927 stage production, is a great swirling mix of values and beliefs. It is the classic story of Evil, simultaneously battling Science, Faith, and Mysticism. It’s a story of how some men might react to threats of evil with immediate thoughts of revenge, while others understand that evil is something to be pitied and understood. Ultimately, Dracula is a story of Redemption from Evil, and a strongly Christian one at that. This Hamilton & Deane stage production, being a condensed version of the full story, tends to emphasise this more than the original Stoker book.
Killing with kindness?
Is such a thing possible? Petrozza explains, “Dracula ultimately cannot fight off the forces of good. He becomes quite snappy when he begins to lose his control over the situation and over the lives of others. He becomes a cornered animal. He is vulnerable. So he lashes out. His very existence has been reduced to this alone, and he struggles to retain it. It’s no matter whether he was a hero to his people 500 hundred years ago; now he is merely the personification of all that is evil. However, there may be, in fact, a small bit of humanity left somewhere inside him that has been in torment and cries out to be released and taken out of its misery. He is, in the end, just a human who has come to this point due to the powers of extreme evil”
Doctor Seward perhaps sums this best when he exclaims ‘God, have pity on us all!’
Tickets for Dracula are now on sale.
Contact South Simcoe Theatre (Cookstown)
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Performances run from March 27th to April 13th (12 shows, including 3 matinees)
Cuthbert is an experienced stage mouse-actor who will make a cameo appearance in this production of Dracula.