This production really bites
Local audiences are in for a Halloween treat this weekend and next as the Blaine Community Theater presents seven performances of its own take on the ageless legend of Count Dracula. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” said director Christopher Key of Birch Bay, “and when they said they were looking for a Halloween kind of thing, I jumped at it.”
Key took Crane Johnson’s rather streamlined 1976 rendition – there are hundreds of variations on the story by dozens of different authors and playwrights – and threw in a few contemporary touches of his own, like setting the play in New York City, having it take place in a corporate headquarters office and making the Count one of Donald Trump’s European cousins.
The Renfield character in many of the earlier versions is an “undead,” a zombie first bitten by and then enthralled with Dracula. Renfield keeps himself suspended between being alive and dead by eating anything as long as it’s living, mainly rats, spiders, birds and flies. Key has him eating bugs, birds and fries, french fries, in fact, from the local Burger King, a kind of Blaine comfort food that has metaphysical implications as well as artery-clogging trans-fats. Key wants us to think about the ways we tempt death and how dangerous that is. “We should always remember that we are surrounded by bloodsuckers. I hope you enjoy this production and I hope it scares you witless,” he says in the director’s notes, like the play itself being both funny and disturbing at the same time.
What’s scary in the end is not so much the character of Dracula, but how easily the Count peels away the veneer of social conditioning with just a simple snake-like bite into his victims’ necks, turning them into mindlessly enthralled, dead-again devotees, as if to say that there are those who will take away from you what you might not choose to lose, something this well-rounded and talented cast seems to have a lot of fun portraying.
All the many versions of Dracula begin with some kind of boy meets girl, boy bites girl routine, of course, and there’s always a chin-scrubbing quasi-scientific investigation launched when pretty young girls inevitably turn into zombie hors d’oeuvres.
In this version the relentlessly Teutonic pursuit of the truth by the one character almost all versions of Dracula include, the Dutch metaphysician Professor van Helsing, leads to deeper discussions about life, death and responsibility, making the play into a platform for social commentary. The character is a woman in this version, played to jack-booted perfection by the imposingly vivid Mikael Kenoyer who struts, poses, twists, slithers and slides around the stage, an academic Marlene Dietrich with a bit of a military bearing, a distaff Colonel Klink, whacking everything within reach with her trademark riding crop. She’s also a kind of Chameleon of Truth, the only character who wears vivid colors that she changes frequently as the counterpoint to the black-shrouded, dead and death dealing Count. Everyone else is in between, trying to make up his or her mind which way to go. Some are shocked to discover that this decision really isn’t up to them any more. How delightfully medieval.
Sandy Brewer is a wonderful and energetic Renfield, the character who has already been bitten as the play opens and slowly emerges as an undead disciple of the Anti-Christ-like Dracula. Brewer plays him as a dangerous yet vulnerable inmate of a New York insane asylum given to eating spiders, birds, “fries,” and anything else that’s living “because I need Life! To Live!” he shouts to no one in particular, like Peter Lorre being ignored by Bogart.
Initially kept around the corporate offices of MenTalCo (a kind of Enron of Asylums) as an experiment, Renfield’s zaniness begins to emerge as a cogent expression of Dracula’s philosophy. But when nonsense begins to make sense, watch out.
Amazingly, Brewer is a stand-in for Marty Ponnech, who true to the theme of the play underwent emergency open-heart surgery while the play was still in rehearsal. He’s recovering, and the cast and crew have dedicated the production to him.
Kerry Walker is magnificent as the befuddled Mrs. Harker, a slow-witted and stultifying dull kind of person who when she walks toward you at church you want to head for the exit. But when Count Dracula visits, bites and thereby begins her metamorphosis into zombiehood she makes the most hauntingly desperate plea for her life imaginable, screaming out a graphic description of just what the vampire made her do (and drink) that really does send chills right down the ol’ spine. Out of the most opaquely benign role in the first half comes this H-bomb of a speech that is the single most effective moment in the play, and alone worth your attending.
It takes a strong Dracula to balance all this talent (that is, Mr. Key reminds us, all local), and the tall and menacing Rick Collier is just right, playing with range, humor, balance and subtlety what could easily degenerate into a one dimensional impression of a ticked off snake. Sometimes the Count is while at other times he’s as courteous as an over-tipped waiter, and at one point flops down on the couch like any “been there, done that” 600-year-old vampire might be expected to do, kinda jaded with it all until van Helsing pulls out a mirror. Look fast and you’ll also see the red socks and bubble gum on the sole of his shoe that are typical Christopher Key touches.
Mathew Smith plays a studious, nerdy Dr. Seward beset with inertia and uncertainty, as if to say that it’s not the physical but that which lies behind it, the meta-physical, where answers will emerge. And here he spent all these years in med school, darn. Still, he gets to do in the Count with a wooden stake and the play ends with him getting the best line of the evening.
Carol Ellingson, also assistant director, plays a suitably persnickety secretary named Abigail, a southern belle who is steady and calm no matter how crazy everything else gets. Gayle Staker’s wonderfully gothic version of Lucy as she sinks toward death and desiccation in shades of gray is a real treat, especially when she comes on to Dracula, the funniest moment in the play. These two make great music together, the perfect ghoulish tryst for Halloween.
Technically the production is very well done, with new lights and a light board set up by Jon Oesting, lighting wizard of the Bellingham Theater Guild. The spackle-thick makeup’s wonderful, of course, and the venue, formerly the Fashion Plate, has been improved a lot but still has the most comfortable seating this side of Ikea. The set is designed to send the sound forward, often a problem in the past but not this time.
The play opens Friday, October 21, at 8 p.m., continues Saturday night and has a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee for the next two weekends, plus a final performance Halloween night complete with a costume contest. Call 392-0582 for info. '
Prices: $8 under 12 & over 55, $10 for everyone else.