What a shame that Halloween has become such a parade of overly familiar, trite imagery, cliched characters, and worn-out, barely spooky trivia. All the more reason to welcome this unexpectedly revitalized, theatrically inventive, and genuinely creepy journey to the origins of one of our most lasting, and most compelling, horror myths.
David Quicksall has adapted the first four chapters of Bram Stoker's 1897 classic, "Dracula" into a vivid, intimate encounter between Jonathan Harker (Jonah Von Spreecken), a young, innocent solicitor, and the chilling world of the menacing Count Dracula (Jerry Lloyd). First brought to the castle to finalize a real-estate transaction, and to tutor the Count in English language and manners, he soon becomes a prisoner, both of the Count and of the supernatural landscape both inside and outside of the Castle. The epistolary structure tells the story through a series of letters between Jonathan and his betrothed, virtuous Mina (Jesse Notehelfer), who remained in London, and the notes he jots down in a small journal. What begins with details of unusual meals and minor curiosities soon becomes a desperate handhold on his imperiled sense of any normalcy, on his own sanity, on the survival of his very soul.
Faithful to the text of the original novel, what keeps Stoker's sometimes archaic verbosity from becoming page-bound is director Quicksall's urgent and fluid theatricality, and the uniformly convincing performances of a talented cast. The scenic design, by Mieko Sassa, is imaginative and elegant, and the stunning sound design by composer Nathan Anderson creates and sustains a mood of dreadful peril, of sensuous corruption, and of pervasive, mortal danger in every moment that one remains in this place. Because the story takes place in Transylvania (before the Count travels to London, where the remainder of the novel takes place) there is an intoxicating sense of the alien, the incomprehensible, of history and legends that inform and shape, but do not explain, these truly frightening events.
That begins with the curious Gypsy man and woman whom Harker meets in the marketplace of Budapest. When the gypsy woman (an excellent Marty Mukhalian) offers to read his fortune, he is innocently curious, but what she sees in the cards sends her scuttling for her unintelligible native tongue, and her companion (Christopher Spott), quickly pockets Harker's money and disappears with her into the streets. All that is predictable "innocents abroad" material. But with the coach ride into the Carpathian Mountains on Walpurgisnacht we encounter something else entirely, a place where terror and great, dark powers make the thunder and lightning seem almost comforting, and where we first feel the absolute terror of those who live in this place. At last to the Castle itself, a place of richness and material well-being, but with the fetid air of corrupted flesh, of death and depravity and desolation. The home of Count Dracula. Where Jonathan must now stay until the Count is ready to release him.
No "Dracula" can be much better than the actor playing the role, and Jerry Lloyd achieves the estimable task of making this character new and unique. He borrows precious little from the long line of screen incarnations, and instead gives us a Count whose bloodless, pale skin and spider-like, long-nailed fingers touch, but do not feel. His ferocity is a snarl that feels poisonous, and his power over things of darkness sends an icy shiver up the spine. When the ladies/wolves/spirits (a fine, erotic, elegant trio of Marissa Price, Kelly Kitchens and Jesse Notehelfer) assume their own quest for satisfaction, he rules them in a way that makes their seductive, slashing, lethal attraction all the more terrible. Mr. Lloyd is also particularly good at letting us know in subtle ways that he has plans much greater than anything that occurs in this place, and that Mr. Harker is little more than a vehicle to transport him to a larger, more nourishing world. In all his little movements, from simple hand gestures to a brilliant walk down a vertical wall (done with a slash of light across the floor) his physicality is as important to his characterization as his words and expressions. His fingertips, tracing however lightly, will despoil anything they touch. His voice is the voice of a shadow at midnight.
Equally critical to making all of this work is the central role of Jonathan Harker, played with complete commitment by Jonah Von Spreecken. An attractive, skilled actor, he deftly walks the line between an ordinary, innocuous man and an adventurer in the midst of the most extraordinary of circumstances. His relationship with Count Dracula is carefully modulated, allowing himself to be profoundly affected, and at the same time retaining a saving measure of autonomy. He sustains his connection with the distant Mina (who is underwritten and too distant in this text) and makes us believe that she can be the salvation of his heart and soul. When he is enticed by the trio of temptresses, we see the frailty of his flesh and desire, at the same time that he retains the virtue which will save him. It's a carefully proportioned, un-fussy, well-spoken performance, and admirable in its restraint.
"Dracula: Jonathan Harker's Journal" is exceptionally well-realized and effective. It conveys the pure, literary original sources, embodies the deeper social, sexual and psychological forces that give the story such deep resonance, and avoids nearly all of the pop-culture clap-trap that has accumulated and trivialized this great tale. It can also scare the bejeezus out of anyone attentive enough to enter into its treacherous embrace. Skip all your regular scary videos and same-as-last-year ideas, and go see this terrific piece of theatre. This one is a treat.
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