Through the darkened mists of October out at the haunted historic ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company proudly presents the classic thriller of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Adapted from the novel, playwrights Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston bring this spine-tingling chiller to the stage; and a more perfect venue will be difficult, nay impossible, to find. Directed by Scott Alan Small, this production of ‘moveable theatre’ is divine providence for this time of year, given the spooky nature of the upcoming holiday; a true homage to classical terror at its finest.
With the sun just beginning to set as the play opens up into the crisp autumnal evening already a shiver of anticipation is creeping up your spine. Director Scott Alan Small has crafted intricate details into the set work of the crumbling ruins, giving an even more spooky feeling to the overall performance. This is far from simply attending a play, even without the added bonus of it being a finely tuned classic thriller; this show is an experience. Small’s use of intimate settings inside and around the ruins draws the audience immediately into the story. When Dracula appears through the bedroom window he could be just behind you without you even knowing it until he’s stalking past you. Keeping the scenic elements minimal allows the masterful beauty of the setting and the talented actors to work their magic in this harrowing and terrifyingly mystical approach to theatre.
With curtains billowing and Victorian accents to all the furnishings the audience is transported directly back to 1897 and finds themselves thrust into the middle of a calamity at Seward’s Sanitorium just outside of London town. Lighting Designer Daniel O’Brien ensures that the rooms stay dark when need be, with just enough light to make out the characters, and does a brilliant job of working with the elements and natural lighting to achieve many effects throughout the performance.
The chilling effects of a time gone by are completed by the superb costume designs of Kristina Lambdin – creating striking portraits when characters, particularly Dracula, first enter a room. Her rich use of blacks and grays in the dull monochromatic are fitting for the time period, Dracula’s naturally accented with deep red and hints of metal. Lambdin uses the most unnatural of whites for Lucy and…apparitions…keeping that uneasy unsettling feel ripe in the air.
Accents a plenty, under the guidance of Director Scott Alan Small, remind the audience to where and when we’ve travled. Miss Wells (Laura Rocklyn) the maid, and Butterworth (Robby Rose) the sanitorium keeper, both present variations on a slightly polished cockney; well spoken for the working class but still in the lower standings. The two accents that are most clearly defined are the harsh yet strikingly familiar sound of Professor Van Helsing, clearly Dutch, and the thick Transylvanian drawl of the count; a sound so smooth that it is difficult not to be entranced the moment you hear him speak.
In this version of the story dear Mina has died and it is Lucy Seward (Blythe Coons) that has survived. Coons portrays a compelling character, appearing at first to be little more than a terrified simpering wisp of a girl. Terribly frail as if it pains her to recount her garish nightmare, Coons reflects the sheer fear that resonates within her chest both vocally and physically, her eyes doing a good deal of the expressing. This, however, is not to say that she has only one depth. Late in the production Coons spins around and becomes a saucy, albeit careless, mistress of the night; a stunning transformation that hardly seems possible. Her reactions to Van Helsing and Dracula are the epitome of damsel in distress, completely unable to help herself.
Driving the production forward and layering excitement and tension into each moment is Professor Van Helsing (Scott Graham). With a masterful handle on his Dutch accent, his stage presence rivals that only of Dracula himself; the perfect match for the creature of the night. During his exasperating speech detailing the existence of vampires, Graham coaxes truly horrific imagery from the text, creating a palpable fear in the air. With a vehement drive against Seward (Frank Mancino) when it comes to knowing he’s right, he puts the fear of the undead into everyone. There is something wildly unsteady about his character’s existence, a sense of excitement that cannot be quenched and this adds a vibrant, albeit terrifying, electricity to the performance.
While Van Helsing may initially appear off his nut, it’s Renfield (Matthew Ancarrow) that breaks the modl on insanity. With gruesome makeup that epitomizes the notion of man gone round the twist, his mannerisms, speech patterns, and physicality harken the stuff of dreams gone wrong. Ancarrow traverses levels of delirium throughout the performance, grounded totally in the reality of being a damned soul serving a demon king. His maniacal cackle sends shivers down your spine and makes you shudder. A more stunning madman will be hard to come by this time of year; Ancarrow has bats flying from his belfry and truly delivers a breath-stealing performance.
Creeping into windows, appearing seemingly from nowhere with silent footfalls and a faintest of sensual musk that precedes his arrival, Count Dracula (Michael P. Sullivan) is frightening. Sullivan acts as a conduit between the living world of actors and theatre and that of the divinely crafted fantasy world in which the legend was constructed. Embodying him with perfection, Sullivan creates an enigmatic, sensually mind-boggling creature that is titillating and terrifying all in one fell swoop of his magnificent cape. An accent of perfection with perfectly poised pauses in his speech, Sullivan transforms this creature of darkness into suave, charming, but deadly manifestation of evil polished and refined. His hiss is bone-chilling and when he bares his fangs that sense of impending doom and dread comes roiling up from the pit of your stomach. But he crafts so much more than terror into this character; creating a duality of forces inside the monster. Using suggestion and persuasion with his natural charm, Sullivan rivals Lugosi in his portrayal.
As the chillier temperatures set in it is important to wear layers, particularly a scarf, out to this theatrical experience. Of course, a little bit of extra neck protection never hurt anyone…
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Dracula plays through October 31, 2013 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at The Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park— 3655 Church Road in Ellicott City, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 331-8661, or purchase them online. It is strongly encouraged to purchase tickets in advance as all remaining Saturday performances have already sold out.