‘Dracula’ at ACT: How Does a Play About Blood Turn Out So Bloodless?

Steven Dietz’s new adaptation of the horror classic seems to have unintentionally landed on comedy
| Updated: October 30, 2019

Watching Dracula, with a neckline cut to his navel, suck dry the tube of an old-timey transfusion machine is undeniably funny. That tasty tableau was one of many moments in Steven Dietz’s adaptation of the gothic novel that had an ACT Theater audience laughing out loud on opening night. But, strangely, it was one of the few moments of comedy that seemed entirely intentional.

Stoker’s Dracula and its nightmare title character need no introduction, but here’s a refresher, just in case: young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Arjun Pande) travels to Transylvania, to help an ancient Count plan his relocation to bustling Victorian London, where the population booms and the necks are plentiful. Back in London, Harker’s beloved Mina (Khanh Doan) and her dear friend Lucy (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) talk about their impending marriages, Mina’s to Jonathan and Lucy’s to...she hasn’t decided yet. One of her suitors, Dr. John Seward (Avery Clark) runs an asylum, where the spider-eating vampire acolyte Renfield (Basil Harris) resides. Eventually, the horrors Jonathan underwent in Count Dracula’s castle are revealed, through journal entries and letters to Mina, told in flashback against the story unfolding in London: Lucy falling ill, Seward powerless to help, the tortured Renfield fulfilling his dark obligations, helping Dracula as he draws closer and closer, while Mina, no longer a victim, fights to unravel the truth of the darkness they’re fighting.  

Dietz’s Dracula premiered in Tucson in 1995 (the 1997 Seattle premiere at the Empty Space Theatre starred former ACT executive director Carlo Scandiuzzi in the title role); this reworked 2019 version, helmed by ACT artistic director John Langs, features a slimmed down character list and run time, as well as a focus on female characters not seen in his original. There’s no vampire-hunter Van Helsing character, which puts Mina in an active, problem-solving role. It’s a step in the right direction, but hardly an ode to female empowerment—the Madonna-whore themes remain strong. In both Stoker’s original and Dietz’s update, Mina’s purity allows for her salvation while Lucy’s lustiness is her downfall.

Plastering modern updates onto a fundamentally old-fashioned story ignores the chronological realities at play: the countless vampire stories created in the 122 years since Stoker first published Dracula have reduced many of the novel’s component parts to obvious cliche. The sexy vampire trope is funny enough on its own, as its main attributes seem to be spontaneous lipstick, and bobby pin loss. But you can’t lean into the trope of vampiric virility (ew, sorry) and produce a play so willfully unerotic—Mina’s borderline orgasmic shrieks as Dracula bit her neck earned opening night chuckles, as did Dracula’s increasingly ridiculous “sexy” costumes. As did the amplified vampire voice booming, “the dead travel fast,” so over-the-top spooooooky that you laugh at it rather than with it. You can’t pretend 2019 cliches aren’t cliches just because you’re using source material from 1897. Work with them, not against them, or the joke’s on you.

A few unreliable accents notwithstanding, this talented cast does an admirable job with the inconsistent material. As Dr. Seward and Renfield, respectively, Avery Clark and Basil Harris tap the vein of earnest absurdity running through this adaptation with precision and glee, which is a joy to watch. Brandon O’Neill, as Dracula, prowls with relish, harnessing beautifully what little darkness the script possesses. (The ancient, withered iteration of Dracula, before blood restores his youth and vigor, is quite a cool puppet controlled by two actors, a lovely low-tech piece of theater tech.)

From the first eerie, echoey wordless vocalizations (courtesy of sound designer and composer Robertson Witmer and talented cellist/vocalist Rachel Beaver, perched high on Matthew Smucker’s all-white set throughout the show) Dracula’s design is striking. Occasional splashes of red—fabric, roses—stand out against the stark monochromatic white, carried through from set to props to costumes (with a few confounding exceptions—in a sea of white, off-white pants looks yellow). While lovely to look at, the design seems to prioritize arbitrary aesthetic over clarity; monochrome makes it hard to convey shifts in time and place, of which there are many as the Transylvania storyline unfolds in flashback. 

As a whole, this production seems much more interested in being “good” than being genuinely scary, tragic, erotic, hilarious, or any combination thereof. That muddle obscures any thematic relevance this Dracula might have, any big questions it might be asking or sensations it’s pursuing. Splatter that white set with blood. Let your actors loose to chew the scenery, if you want to handle cliche by leaning into its inherent camp. Scare us. Gut us. Turn us on. Do something. It’s strange to see a story of such danger told so safely. Gothic work is over the top, melodramatic, more-is-more kind of art. Why choose it if you’re not willing to go for the throat?

Times and prices vary. Ends November 17. ACT ‒ A Contemporary Theatre, downtown

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