Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, Walnut Creek
Adaptations of Dracula, be they for stage, film or television, are as old as time itself; eternal entertainment. Center REP brings its own unique style and flair with a slick and sensual presentation now playing on the Lesher stage. If Tim Burton were to direct the theater production, this is how it would look — shadow-filled off kilter gothic set, fanciful costumes, heaving bosoms, and, of course, stakes and hammers for all! It’s vastly entertaining — not in the classic sense, but in a modern, re-imaged way. And did I mention there is just a wee bit of Transylvania smoke here and there?
In a bit of inspired casting, San Francisco Opera favorite and Romanian born (true that) Eugene Brancoveanu plays the 500-year old Count himself. He captures the mysterious persona perfectly. “Welcome to my home…” he utters in deep baritone, dressed in fantastical costume as smoke slides across the castle floor. From menacing and vulnerable to seductive and charming, Brancoveanu assumes the multiple identities convincingly. It’s a highlight of the production.
Soon innocent women are being bitten in the middle of the night, clothing is shed, and the seduction begins. Madeline H.D. Brown as Lucy and Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Mina portray their descent into darkness with pasty-faced zeal. Their chemistry in earlier scenes, singing and bantering about love, works well and we know their innocence is not for long.
Other key roles are strong as well including Michael Barrett Austin as Renfield, a mentally disturbed asylum inmate, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Jonathan Harker the wide-eyed accountant and husband to be, and Robert Sicular as a deliciously over-the-top Professor Van Helsing.
The set (Kim A. Tolman) and sound (Cliff Caruthers) ultimately power the production. With four tombstone-like, off-kilter walls, the set is bathed in blues and greens. Red trees in the foreground, and darker ones in the back cast shadows and enrapture us with an almost fun-house aesthetic. With a uni-stage design, the action is fluid with no time-consuming set changes required. Being a committed fan of horror, I loved the constant sense of dread and impending shock created by the pulsing soundtrack, with occasional thunderous jolts.
Costumes (Victoria Livingston-Hall) are once again stellar. As in She Loves Me, Center REP is able to create lavish texture that transports us in time. Never for a moment does the illusion of Transylvania break.
Now about that smoke. This is the most amount of dry ice I’ve ever — ever — seen in one production. During the climax there is so much of it floating towards the audience that we soon realize the entire Lesher Theatre has become a spook-house. And we are among the sitting dead, squinting through it to watch the final scene. Any more of it and oxygen masks would need to drop from overhead compartments. It was a thriller for me. For others it might be over-the-top (and a breathing challenge).
The second act couldn’t quite live up to the pacing and build-up of the first which features sexy Vampire Vixens, grand appearances by Dracula in multiple guises, and Dr. Seward (Michael Wiles) trying to maintain order in the asylum. Once Dracula is on the run, and the crosses, stakes and hammers, and torches come out, it’s hard to mistake this for anything but a fun romp across medieval landscapes and dungeons. Occasionally it can look somewhat kludgy; the angled set and walkways makes this a challenge for the actors no doubt.
Dracula delivers in just about every way we’d expect; it’s seductively crafted, beautiful to watch, and the performances are energetic, never too serious. Think of it as Tim Burton style entertainment for the stage.
Center REP Theatre
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
3 out of 5 stars
Directed by Michael Butler
Starring Eugene Brancoveanu, Michael Barrett Austin, Robert Sicular, Michael Wiles