Dracula Is a Triumph

Photo credit: PIQUANT PHOTO.

Photo credit: PIQUANT PHOTO.

Kira Hawkridge’s OUT LOUD Theatre Company is in the thick of its fourth season, pulling quite a neat trick by upending material in the public domain and presenting it all admission-free. For some, that would mean endless Shakespeare rehashes (of which there is one included in the roster) or a steampunk Mikado, but Hawkridge and company have reworked and reoriented three least-expected offerings for public consumption. Sophocles’ Antigone, usually relegated to college theater 101 courses, ran back in March and the under-produced Coriolanus gets its due in September. Running now, however, is an audacious and sensual take on Dracula, a story/character that certainly has not suffered from underexposure, but never fails to intrigue. For this iteration, Hawkridge has teamed up with writer David Nando Rogers to create a surreal, sexual dreamscape that bombards the senses and will most likely surpass BTC’s Titus Andronicus as the year’s most gratuitous use of stage blood. The run sold out a while back (the OUT LOUD space at Mathewson Street Church doesn’t hold all that many seats to begin with), but, for the curious, a waiting list contains a litany of the hopeful. So, the real point of covering a show that was sold out by opening night is not to publicize, but to explore whether the sellout is justified. In this case, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

As with any adaptation, purists of the original source material may take issue; many characters and subplots from Stoker’s original are missing, but even the early stage adaptations took this liberty. The biggest upheaval here, of course, is that the titular personage is now a woman (played with a rapacious efficacy by OUT LOUD’s mainstay lead, Sarah Leach). While the character of Dracula has always been synonymous with sexuality, never has it been this overt, this upfront and so integral to the plot. Leach’s Dracula is a tortured dominatrix, suffering from addictions both sexual and psychological. This Dracula is not about a loss of innocence and a descent into an ambiguous Gothic purgatory, but a darker, incongruously human hell. She is omniscient and masterly, even when faced with adversaries, but her death wish is palpable, and none of the beautiful torture she employs is anything she would not experience as well.

OUT LOUD again makes use of the entirety of the Mathewson Street playing space, mostly eschewing the actual stage for the floor, which is divided by a long runway-like platform and smaller platforms in each corner. At the head, opposite the stage and framed by the wall-to-wall windows of the room, sits Mina Harker (a stately Ottavia De Luca), waiting her introduction into the storyline, and surrounded by jars of varying sizes. The jars are backlit by votive candles and filled with blood. This particular image sums up the aesthetic created by Sara Ossana (set consultation) and OUT LOUD’s always intriguing designer Marc Tiberiis II: beautiful, simply lit and brimming with menace. The audience is scattered throughout in lush armchairs and served wine by a roomful of slaves/masters, fangs on display and relationships already being established before a word is spoken or the audience is even fully seated. The effect is comfortably uncomfortable, as if we thought we were going to church but instead wound up in the center of a Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson video. Lauren Ustaszewski’s “untouchable” establishes her need for contact quickly with nothing but a hiss and a crawl while Rico Lanni and Kerry Giorgi create one of the more unsettling and creepily sexual pairings seen onstage in a long time. The music is all club and goth (on a technical aside, OUT LOUD would do well to invest in a better means of sound projection; long silences in what sounded like an iPod playlist were somewhat off-putting and threatened to break the atmosphere created by the actors). As Leach establishes control of the setting (dressed in a stunning, form-fitting black gown that is favorably comparable to Morticia Addams), the play commences and we are introduced to Michael Puppi’s Jonathan Harker, an unassuming solicitor who wanders into, not a cold, barren mansion filled with distant howls and a cold, odd master, but a Dionysian nightmare in which he is slowly tortured, tempted, almost fulfilled and tortured yet again. Leach browbeats him in fluent Romanian, with snatches of English, but for the over two-hour running time of Dracula, very little dialogue is actually employed. What we experience, for the most part, is a series of dreamlike vignettes, bordering on the edge of too long, but so gorgeous and compelling that we are always left wanting more, even as we race to figure out what actually happened. Infants are mutilated, bodies entwine and writhe, loyalties and purities are tested and stretched to the breaking point, all while we grasp at snatches of traditional plot. Paige Barry’s Lucy Westenra prowls the corners, adding vocal effects and technical assistance until it is her time to join the story and establish her relationship with the ever-pining Mina.

It is in moments such as these, where the nightmares recede and we have actual people speaking English dialogue (many of Puppi’s moments as Harker apply here as well) that everything seems almost too plain, too ordinary. The self-obsessed Lucy is a nice bit of character work from Barry, but everything pales in comparison to the blood orgies and agony of her eventual submission to Leach’s dark desires. And, that is the point: Hawkridge and Rodgers are not exploring a spooky fairy tale, but a landscape of desire, the inhumanity serving to punctuate the extremes of Leach’s excruciating addictions. When life can only be reduced to extremes, normalcy is simply boring. This is Hawkridge’s particular skill as a director, apart from her knack for the “pretty picture” – she understands dynamics, the peaks and valleys of not just a dramatic scene but of human existence. Here, Dracula becomes a cautionary tale. Even as she is pursued by a Van Helsing who is part antagonist and part lover, she is torn between passion and a death wish. What seems flat and dull is actually just life before the fall. And we all fall down.

OUT LOUD’s Dracula is a triumph, despite its few flaws (Van Helsing, for instance, seems to have less and less meaning as a character, but is conversely involved in some of the more striking moments in the show, including one of the better choreographed stage fights we’ve ever seen). As a script, it may perhaps benefit from some more tweaking and the difference between opening night and its close on May 27 will undoubtedly tighten things up. In the end, however, these are trifles, for this Dracula is essential and vital. It challenges, provokes, absorbs and frightens – all the things we want from live theater. Kira Hawkridge and OUT LOUD have managed another small masterpiece. See it, if at all possible, but put any prudish preconceptions aside. This Dracula is out for more than just blood.

OUT LOUD Theatre presents an original adaptation of Dracula. All performances are free and open to the public as part of their Season 4 “free for all” public domain initiative. Dracula runs through Friday, May 27 at The Mathewson Street Theater (134 Mathewson St) in Providence. To sign up for waiting list tickets, go to: outloudtheatre.org WARNING: USE OF HEAVY STROBE LIGHTING. MATURE/GRAPHIC CONTENT ADVISORY.

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