Watching the evolution of playwright/actress Kate Hamill has been a professional pleasure. From adapting Jane Austen with inspired physicality and wit while weighing in as a member of the company, to a Dracula notable not only for accomplished, original writing, but her own extraordinary, antic performance as Mrs. Renfield, (the vampire’s servant), Hamill’s singular trajectory (acknowledging potholes) has been a gift to contemporary theater.
Hamill reconceives Bram Stoker’s classic as a feminist revenge fantasy, mining the tale with disarmingly, contemporary perspective. Do not be put off. Signature piquancy intact, she manages to be neither pedantic nor ponderous.
We meet Renfield (Kate Hamill) in the asylum in which she’s incarcerated. The first of Robert Perdziola’s inspired costumes (also great hair and make-up) has her resembling a Tim Burton character. (Period clothes and crossovers work collaboratively.) Formerly a poetess who wrote about flowers (a perfect, passive 19th century female), she was abroad with her husband when conscripted by Count Dracula.
Mr. Renfield went missing. His wife was found wandering, “raving” about the “father” to whom she was devoted (enslaved). Moments of later lucidity find the character bemoaning all she gave up before “sacrificing everything to masters of the earth…I don’t trust men, they make all the rules, they can lock us up…”
Hamill manifests the gleefully mad Renfield audibly, verbally and physically. She laughs, makes sounds, demands, warns, pleads, coils, bounds, and blazes. Brava.
Mina, (Kelley Curran), is tethered to period restrictions out of habit. As she gradually rises above them finding latent interior resources (despite, men keep pointing out, being pregnant), we feel like cheering. Still, old patterns die hard. Curran has graceful, genteel presence, entirely credible focus. Observing multilayered emotions allows us to take Mina’s journey with her in real time.
Her straight-arrow husband Jonathan Harker (Michael Crane, adroitly mercurial) is called to Transylvania by Dracula (Matthew Amendt, a fine blend of satiric exaggeration and malevolence) in order to secure proper accounts and lodgings for the Count in London. Harker tellingly wonders whether referring to village citizenry as “peasants” is politically correct. The lawyer is, of course, fed upon, palpably becoming a puppet.
At the castle, he encounters two female parasites/children of the vampire who ghoulishly seduce. Laura Baranik (Drusilla) and Lori Lang (Marilla) ably depict appetite and debauchery.
Mina’s best friend Lucy (Jamie Ann Romero) is a lesson here. Though mesmerized by Dracula, we get the impression she’d be attracted to what Renfield calls “the exalted state” were she of sound mind. (Aren’t most of us?) The actress is marvelous, whether girlishly chattering about adventure or a femme fatale in thrall.
Lucy also brings to fore the stubborn stupidity of fiancé, Dr. Seward (Matthew Saldivar- could do more with the role), who steadfastly refuses to allow for possibilities with which he’s not secure, including that there’s anything distinctive about Renfield or that females are capable humans. “None of this makes any sense,” he sputters when told about Dracula’s possession of Lucy. “You mean she chose to leave me?!”
Doctor Van Helsing, now a woman vampire killer (Jessica Frances Dukes – imagine Prospero as a rock n’ roll cowgirl) – cue audience gasps – dispatches misogyny with bravado, getting on with business at hand. A refreshing conceit, she’s brought to life by Dukes with gravitas and brio.
Again and again referred to by “Miss” rather than “Doctor,” Van Helsing slaps back the misnomer. Swept aside, Dr. Seward asks what he can do to help. “Get me a coffee,” the expert snaps administering to her patient. Cumulative effect on Mina is particularly striking. In Hamill’s version, Van Helsing sees her as no one else does. Dialogue is economic, direct, combative, occasionally colloquial – unique to her.
The classic plot is more or less, otherwise unchanged. Lucy is dead, then not, then dead. London suffers unexplained murders. Jonathan returns home still possessed. Renfield grows increasingly despairing. (Her relationship to the master is splendidly imagined.) A “nest” must be found by those brave enough to take on the monster. The ending is original Hamill.
The production looks and sounds gothic and great: Adam Honore – Lighting Design, Leon Rothenberg, Sound Design.
Blood effectively appears as strands of metallic red or patches of appliquéd sequins. Blackouts save us from characters’ decapitation (in order that the dead remain dead). Lucy’s tomb is created by hanging sheet/curtains pulled over a bed and tucked in. John Doyle’s minimal, evocative furniture and curtain are employed with terrific efficacy.
None of this would come together as it has without the sure hand, sharp intelligence and tangy creativity of Director Sarna Lapine who never goes over the line into vaudeville. Aisles and a balcony are used to great effect. Pacing is excellent. Relationships beam.
This is a marvelous production, worthy of a much longer run.
Photos by James Leynse
Opening: Kelley Curran (Mina), Jessica Frances Dukes (DR. Van Helsing), Matthew Amendt (Dracula)
Classic Stage Company presents
Dracula by Kate Hamill
Based on the novel by Bram Stoker
Directed by Sarna Lapine
CSC 136 East 13th Street
NEXT: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins April 2, May 17, 2020