DRACULABy Michael Federico
Conceived by Christie Vela and Michael Federico
World Premier New Play
Director – Christie Vela
Assistant Director – Alex Hernandez
Stage Manager – Michelle Foster
Scenic Design – Jeffrey Schmidt
Lighting Design – Aaron Johansen
Sound Design – John Flores
Costume Design – Holly Hill
Fight Choreographer – Nicole Berastequi
Properties Master – Claudia Jenkins
Count Dracula – Allison Pistorius
Van Helsing – Gloria Vivica Benavides
Mina Murray/Bride – Natalie Young
Lucy Westenra/Bride – Natalie Hope Johnson
Jonathan Harker/Various – Ian Mead Moore
Renfield/Various – Paul T Taylor
Dr. Seward/Arthur/Quincey – Josh Bangle
Ensemble – Kat Lozano
Reviewed Performance: 10/7/2019
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
There’s a ream of research about how this story originated and what it meant, but Stoker himself left no clues. At its most basic, it's a story of good versus evil with multinational chases and swashbuckling action in dark castles and an asylum. And, of course, blood. But the basic questions persist.
What drove the Count to madness? How did he come to be a vampire? What were the complications that created him? In a more modern genre, are people born evil or is evil thrust upon them?
These questions are also addressed in Dracula, a new version by Michael Federico, in collaboration with Christie Vela, debuting at Theatre Three in Dallas. This version focuses on Mina, Jonathan Harker’s wife and a victim of Dracula. Women of the 1890’s were chattel, tied to their husband’s control, unable to own property or find a personal purpose beyond “wife.” To Stoker she was a victim. But in this play, Mina searches for her place in a restrictive world, fighting society more than Dracula.
Christie Vela directed this production with a nod to the welcome trend in diversity casting. She cast Count Dracula with a female actor. The Count, in obvious female attire, is generally referred to as male. But there was no question about this actor being female and, as a result, we can see that gender is not immune to becoming the cause of horror. But gender was a pre-thought on this night, an interesting fact. The actor was seen submerged in the character’s actions with no thought about who was playing them. Van Helsing, the vampire-hunting scientist, was also cast as female. These actors’ gender seemed natural. In both cases, casting opened this story to subtle changes not found in other versions. Perhaps this suggests that audiences will accept well-cast diversity without question.
Vela, as Director, also created a production where the team immersed the audience into an atmosphere of horror. You could feel it on entry. From the pre-show music from Penny Dreadful to the eerie sounds and effects, sound provided the underlying basis for horror. John Flores designed this sound almost as an unseen character. Aaron Johansen provided some of the most dramatic lighting schemes, coloring and effects I’ve seen this year. T3’s stage is a square floor with four active corners, so lighting seems a particular challenge. But opportunities to create visuals abound. Two corners had scrims on which projected images enhanced the stage and behind which were highlighted shadow characters. A wall behind one audience section was itself a scrim that allowed shadows of actors to be seen. If you appreciate technical theater, this production is a must-see.
That acting floor was generally bare except for a platform structure with a high circular staircase to an entry platform high above the floor. A moving platform on the floor provided the all-important casket, though it was seldom used for that. But nearby stage boxes also provided a stairway to a hanging platform that formed the insane asylum. Jeffrey Schmidt got credit for scenic design, but this set may have been a collaboration of all the highly creative minds at T3. There was lots of creative energy built into this production.
Costumes by Holly Hill was ornate, detailed, and apparently specific to Stoker’s time. There were eight actors for numerous characters who had little time to change between scenes and this seemed possible by allowing for slight adjustments rather than wholesale clothing changes in many cases. Claudia Jenkins’ many unique props and costume pieces must have provided as much fun as playing the story.
Dracula is filled with violence, albeit mostly implied. A bit of fake blood, a scuffle here and there, and great physicality provided action that’s come to be expected of horror stories. Nicole Berastequi was Fight Choreographer. The fight scenes and acted violence were enough to cause some people afterwards to say it was scary. I’m not sure of that. We live in a time when CNN plays out more horror than we’ve ever seen, so this doesn’t seem nearly as scary now. But what we saw was well-done and applaud Berastequi for that.
As reported earlier, Director Vela cast Allison Pistorius as Count Dracula. This may have been inspired casting, as Pistorius captured the essence of Dracula, both the Count and the vampire, with great skill, allowing human pain and loneliness to co-exist with a cold menacing terror. The look was decidedly female, with long nails and a thick Romanian accent, a bit glamorous and subtle sexiness at times. But the male-ness of manipulation and insistence on voluntary surrender in victims was equally strong. Pistorius skillfully walked a tightrope between falling into the comic camp of many movie versions and threading challenges of someone who lived hundreds of years for a singular purpose. Rather than being the primary character commanding the story, this Count seemed more to be a conduit for Mena’s self-discovery, advisor rather than monster. Pistorius played all these subtleties sensitively, recognizing the great power of a role like the Count, but subduing that to allow for the development of other characters.
Mina was played by Natalie Young with all the female complication we’ve come to look for in heroines. Mina is usually played as hapless victim of Dracula, not a heroine. Her normal role is to be rescued. Here Mina begins that way but fights the status quo to discover her power, largely through her contact with Dracula. She’s clearly the focus of Federico’s Dracula. Her arc takes her from childish innocent to something more modern. Young showed this arc incrementally with small quizzical looks and physical reactions to textual references and then found her voice and slowly built the strength to question and challenge her limitations. We began to pull for Mina’s revelations as a true heroine.
Two characters written by Stoker as minor became pivotal to this story and the production. Renfield and Van Helsing took on important voices to advance this story. Of course, Van Helsing got his own movie, but even that was mostly about Dracula. Renfield is a former author and agent who came under the spell of Dracula and now resides in the asylum. He’s still under the spell, though in this version, we see an aspect of choice in his character. His acting place was a long metal, cage-like, platform jutting out of the wall over one corner of the house. This platform allowed him to play out over the main stage floor with characters below and it allowed him to physically act directly with the cage. Renfield was played here by Paul T Taylor as a genuine, apparent, crazy – he eats creatures and craves small kittens! Taylor combined a menacing terror and apparent lunacy with a comic timing that made him at once pathetic, horrific, sympathetic, and hilarious. Taylor played these and showed a complexity in Renfield that connected him, better than other male characters, to Mina.
The same can be said of Van Helsing, played here by Gloria Vivica Benavides. This powerhouse of an actor took the stage with high energy and held it every time she entered. Van Helsing is the Indiana Jones of the story, exploring the world and solving difficult scientific problems, like vampires! Called in by Doctor Seward when Lucy starts losing blood, he identifies the curse and pursues Dracula. But, even more than an enhanced Van Helsing, Benavides made this character more with her over-the-top, larger-than-life, personality that filled the theater. She gave this character a range of emotions, outrageous actions, and projected power that made the audience sit up and pay attention. Van Helsing showed one path to the possibilities a female can attain if she takes it on, in contrast to Mina. Benavides took this to the extreme and made Van Helsing hilarious. Along with Taylor, they injected enough humor into the horror to keep this story from turning morose or ridiculous. At the same time, she allowed her character to move the central action of the chase of Dracula forward to what we imagined might be the inevitable conclusion for Dracula and Mina.
Lucy Westenra, Mina’s rich sister-like friend, was played by Natalie Hope Johnson. Lucy is worldly, but also steeped in the old ways. Her goal is a rich husband who she will serve and pleasure through life. At least until she gets bitten. Johnson played Lucy’s outward sexuality fully and then expanded it after her encounter with Dracula. That relationship between Lucy and Mina could be said to allow for some suggestion of an even closer relationship, just like scholars suggest Stoker’s story may have explored the restricted sexuality of England. Johnson and Natalie Young played this relationship with an innocence that could possibly be seen as more, but they never pushed it. In the end, however, there’s a reconnection between the them, but that part of the story is only for those who see this show.
Jonathan Harker, played by Ian Mead Moore, is a main character in Stoker’s story, he’s the protector of his fiancée and wife, Mina. But here he represents societal norms against women and possibly her enemy. Here he becomes a pawn in the struggle between Dracula and Mina. Moore looked the part of a London barrister and a solicitor to Dracula. But he also showed confusion about what was happening to Jonathan and to Mina. And he had to show the loss and hurt as she pulled away from him to become the woman she wanted to be.
The characters of Dr. Seward, Arthur, and Quincey were created by Josh Bangle. This was a challenging part because he played them interchangeably, often moments apart, and at one time altogether on stage. These were the primary male roles who focused on the protection of Lucy and Mina. They helped Van Helsing try to subdue Dracula. Bangle gave each character slightly different characteristics and was able to do rapid costume changes, often in minutes, to switch. He navigated character changes, so we always knew who he was.
Bram Stoker left no ideas about his meaning, which opened the story to any plausible theory. It was the end of the repressive Elizabethan age. English sexuality and the divergence between the wealth and squalor were both ripe for comment. There was a technological upheaval and a prolific literary explosion. But what has kept this story alive 120-years was the horror and adventure. Michael Federico’s Dracula is also a great story that raises questions about evil in discrimination. Evil needs more explanation. But this time we can add ideas about women finding their power and becoming a force in nature.
Frankly, though, Dracula continues to be a riveting adventure about good chasing evil. Vela and Federico’s version is well-written, beautifully produced, and acted perfectly. The humor was a fantastic addition that made the 2-hour show fun to experience. I heartily implore you to visit Theatre Three this month. It will be the highlight of your All Hallows Eve.
Norma Young Arena Stage
2800 Routh Street Suite 168
Dallas, Texas 75201
Plays through October 27th.
Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm. Sundays at 2:30pm.
Hooky Matinee: Wednesday, September 16 at 2:00pm; Saturday Matinee: October 26 at 2:30pm.
Tickets range from $25-35; $3 off for seniors; $3 off each ticket for groups of 10 or more.
$10 T3 community tickets (faculty/staff/alumni). $15 student rush (valid ID required). Half-price subscriber tickets for Theatre Too shows. Half-price military tickets (valid ID required).
For information and tickets, visit www.Theatre3Dallas.com or call 214.871.3300.