Review: ‘Dracula’ at American University

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The famous novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker, has been adapted for countless film and stage productions, thrilling audiences since 1897. With a cinematic look and feel, some stand out performances, and spectacular action sequences, American University’s Dracula, adapted by William McNulty, is a visually stunning, gender-bending haunted house thrill ride.

Anna Kabis and Tristan Salvon-Harman. Photo by Erin Sullivan.

Carl Menninger, Assistant Professor at American University’s Department of Performing Arts, directed the show in the spirit of Carmilla, an 1870 vampire novella that featured a lesbian vampire. As Dramaturg Elizabeth Morton wrote:

Gender is carefully choreographed, rehearsed, and presented like any performance…The society presented onstage overturns what we think to be true about gender. We will see women in full Victorian dresses battle demons and gallantly protect their (male) lovers.

Mallorie Stern and Tristan Salvon-Harman in Dracula. Photo by Erin Sullivan.

Despite the cross-gender casting, the gender pronouns remained the same. Seeing male actors perform lines intended for women, and vice versa was at times funny, but took some getting used to. As a director, Menninger, took to heart the concept of using the entire stage to full effect. He was also quite inventive in his staging, at one point creating a human “boat” made of actors, who used body language to simulate a storm-tossed vessel.

The well-known story centers around a certain Count Dracula (the outstanding Mallorie Stern), who travels from the country of Transylvania (modern day Romania) to England to purchase an estate there with the help of lawyer Jonathan Harker (Emily Krusche-Bruck). The immortal, daylight adverse Dracula has a taste for human blood and is pursued by Abraham Van Helsing (played with authority and a good Dutch accent by Anna Shafer).

Two heroines in the story, Harker’s fiancée Mina Grant and Lucy Westphal, were played by men, David Brewer and Zach Ruchkin respectively. Dr. John Seward, a doctor who ran a mental hospital, was played by a woman, Erica Pierce.

Callie Trawick dominated the stage in the peculiar role of Robert Renfield, an inmate in Seward’s hospital. Trawick was spot on with her intense, manic delivery and cockney accent. Tristan Salvon-Harman’s Irish accent fueled his portrayal of Margaret Sullivan, who at one point is told: “You Irish women are beautiful.”

Stern’s powerful presence and Eastern European accent made her scenes compelling and frightening. Puppeteers Peter Mikhail and Danielle Gallo brought to life the fearsome hounds, monsters and wolves Dracula shape-shifted into. Anna Kabis delivered a fine performance as a hospital staffer, Norbert Briggs.

The cast of ‘Dracula.’ Photo by Erin Sullivan.

From biting, crunching, creaking and lightening sounds, Sound Designer Kenny Neal created practically another character in the show. Some audience members literally jumped in their seats when startled by one of Neal’s sound effects. Scenic Designer Andrew Cohen’s set, on the proscenium stage, included 8-iron gates on wheels, which costumed stage hands spun around to create everything from prison cells to gated walls. Cohen also made good use of eight, functioning chandeliers and an upstage, translucent scrim with the pattern of 19th Century style wallpaper, from which various violent scenes played out.

Fight Director Robb Hunter helped create cinematic, top-notch fight scenes, including pop-gun pistols, hammers, and stakes. John Jeter’s Props/Puppet Design was simply awesome. Costume Designer Barbara Tucker Parker created convincing Edwardian threads for the actors.

Dracula’s well-deserved standing ovation makes it a pulse-pounding Halloween hit in February.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Dracula plays through February 18, 2017 at American University’s Howard and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Avenue NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 885-2787, or purchase them online.

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