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Triad Stage's UpStage Cabaret Production of Dracula Never Quite Grabs Its Audience's Heart with an Icy Hand

September 26, 2008 - Greensboro, NC:


More than 20 years ago, in another journalistic lifetime, I wrote a video column for the Raleigh News & Observer about horror movies that could still scare the pants off you in what we today would call your “home theater.” After recruiting a couple of teenagers as guinea pigs, we three settled down for a Saturday-afternoon videotape marathon that included Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which Ben and Scott laughed their way through. Then we got to The Hitcher; and the boys sat squirming in their seats, silent as the dismembered corpses that the title character of that 1986 scary movie left scattered along the roadside.

The Hitcher has what I call a “squirm factor” that is lacking in the other three movies named above and is entirely absent in the inaugural UpStage Cabaret presentation of Dracula, Triad Stage co-founder and artistic director Preston Lane’s adaptation of the classic 1897 horror novel by Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker (1847-1912), who incidentally was business manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre and personal assistant to the famous English actor Henry Irving.

Triad Stage guest director Jay Putnam goes for a film-noir effect, staging Dracula largely in the dark on scenic designer Holly Joy Griffin’s T-shaped skeletal set that bisects the intimate 80-seat UpStage Cabaret on the top floor of The Pyrle Theater. The problem is, the shadows upon shadows of Kate Devine’s lighting design obscure the actors’ facial expressions at so many key moments that it is difficult for the audience to share the terror of Dracula’s victims. Even seated ringside, in splatter distance from poor, anemic Lucy Westenra’s sickbed-turned-deathbed, it is hard to feel the horror of Dracula.

Two actors with dramatically different body types and hair styles — one short-haired and clean shaven and the other long-haired with a scruffy moustache and beard — play the vampire king at the same time, one in London and the other in Dracula’s native Transylvania; and that alone requires more willing suspension of disbelief than most Triad Stage patrons will be able to muster.

Beefy Lee Spencer, who plays a John Cleese-like Dracula in Transylvania, also portrays Abraham Van Helsing, but without the charisma of the fearless Dutch vampire hunter. A noticeably thinner and scruffier Alexander Windner Lieberman, who resembles Tom Cruise at his grungiest in the movie Born on the Fourth of July, not only plays Dracula in London — without even a hint of that special something that makes him catnip for a succession of impressionable young women — but also impersonates the bug-eating raving lunatic Renfield and the hapless estate agent Jonathan Harker, who becomes the latest guest to check into Castle Dracula, but never check out.

Lee Spencer gives a workmanlike performance as Dracula and Van Helsing, but Alexander Lieberman makes a better wild-eyed vampire henchman (Renfield) than a vampire king. As Dracula, Lieberman is merely creepy and grotesque, not terrifying and never sexy. Where is Bela Lugosi when we need him?

Joshua Purvis not only plays the stolid Dr. Seward, superintendent of the asylum where Renfield is bugging out more and more as Dracula comes nearer and nearer; but he also adds an intentionally comic cameo (in drag) as a furtive Innkeeper who tries to warn Jonathan Harker about his infamous client, Count Dracula, and an unintentionally comic cameo as Vampire No. 1, who looks too much like a bare-chested version of Dr. Seward to be credible.

Caitlin Watkins likewise fails to give her three characters — Dr. Seward’s fiancée Lucy Westenra, Mina Harker, and Vampire No. 2 — distinctive personalities. Watkins’ cameo as Vampire No. 2, when she teams up with Vampire No. 1 and Dracula to attack Jonathan Harker, is ho-hum, neither seductive nor scary.

The UpStage Cabaret version of Preston Lane’s Dracula, which runs just 70 minutes, without intermission, never quite grabs its audience’s heart with an icy hand, like the novel does. With the actors almost constantly — if frequently dimly — in view on the minimalist set, the opportunity for Dracula or his henchman to sneak up on the hapless citizens of London is virtually nonexistent. The audience sees them coming, and last Friday night the only chills in Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret production of Dracula came from the theater’s air-conditioning system, which seemed to be set on Blizzard.

Note: This production continues through November 1. For details, see our openings page.