“Lean forward and engage,” USF educational director Michael Don Bahr advised an almost full house of high school theatre students and a few adult theatre-goers just before the curtain rose on a retelling of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
I had forgotten it was the Shakespeare Competition this past weekend at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Southern Utah University. I suddenly found myself surrounded by one of the most intense audiences of my life. If you ever want to feel a horror play more deeply, sit down in a theatre full of teenage thespians. The energy was palpable.
The play opens with a monologue by Renfield (Chris Mixon) who seems very much the Victorian gentleman sitting down to dinner. Yet, he soon turns into a raving lunatic biting into a rat as he is hauled off to the asylum. Renfield will reappear throughout the play as a harbinger of evil things to come.
Mixon’s Renfield is creepy crazy good, enough to make our skin crawl at his monologues of madness as he rages on about his “Master.”
Meanwhile, friends Mina (Kelly Rogers) and Lucy (Jamie Ann Romero) are catching each other up on their love lives. Mina is steadfast in her devotion to her fiance Jonathan Harker (Brendan Marshall-Rashid) who is away on business in Transylvania. Lucy reveals her love for three different suitors including the asylum doctor, Dr. Seward (John Maltese). The play begins with moments of hope and optimism for the future.
There is no way this play stays optimistic. As Harker stands in the background and recounts, through letters to Mina, his adventures in Transylvania with his client Count Dracula (Tyler Pierce), dark surprising portents flash against the backdrop. Dracula appears for a moment out of nowhere and the audience gasps just a little.
Director Jesse Berger leverages the element of surprise in this production, and in another place (like Vegas) his Dracula could be a magician with his ability to suddenly slither out of the fog and evaporate again. Although there were a few over-the-top moments involving gushing blood, props must go to the artistic team for the special effects and lighting design (Kirk Bookman) in this show.
Dracula and vampires have been cast in thousands of different ways over the past 100 years since Bram Stoker penned his novel. Curiosity demanded I wonder at what USF’s Dracula would be like. Pierce’s Dracula was beyond creepy. No woman or man in their right mind wants to be seduced by the powerful and menacing Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel and Pierce’s Dracula was shudder worthy.
He escaped (most of the time) the cheesiness that can come with this role. Rogers and Romero played intensely seductive and dark women once they fall victim to Dracula’s poisonous nightly visits.
Even a horror story needs a bright light of optimism. Enter vampire hunter Van Helsing (John G. Preston). As the characters of the play descend into despair and madness, Van Helsing enters the fight with Dr. Seward to save Mina’s life and unravel the mystery of her deathly illness.
Preston delivers a Van Helsing that is reassuring, capable and a bright light of hope. Every time he left the stage, I would feel anxiety. I wanted to whisper, “Come back Van Helsing. Please don’t leave.” For I, along with an audience full of thespians, had taken Don Bahr’s advice and leaned forward and become engaged in a story that continues to be worthy of Halloween.
On a sidenote: This is not a play for young children. It contains violence and adult themes.
Dracula plays in the Randall L. Jones Theatre through Oct. 31. For more information visit www.bard.org or call 1-800-PLAYTIX.