Review: ‘Dracula’ at The Mechanical Theater

Adapted, designed, and directed by Loretta Vasile, The Mechanical Theater’s immersive site-specific production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, performed at the solemn Neo-Classical Receiving Vault of Laurel Hill Cemetery, provides the quintessential blood-curdling theme and spine-chilling location for the Halloween season. Founded in 1836, the historic burial ground, filled with 19th-century tombs and funerary monuments, couldn’t be a more perfect fit for the Irish author’s tale of Gothic horror and defining work of the vampire genre, and for the company dedicated to presenting the classics in apropos settings at Philadelphia’s landmark properties.

Neena Boyle, Connor Behm, and Anthony Crosby. Photo by Emma Stern.

Neena Boyle, Connor Behm, and Anthony Crosby. Photo by Emma Stern.

Set in 1897 (the year in which Stoker’s novel was published), Vasile’s original adaptation contains the main characters from the book and the fundamental storyline, but with the development of new plot points that give more prominence to a female perspective and an even greater focus on the complex role of Mina Murray and the central significance of her backstory. The additions are not only smart and suspenseful, but also retain Stoker’s Victorian style and language, while expanding on his allusions to the “New Woman” (in an era that saw the beginnings of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in England). And though Vasile’s retelling forgoes the epistolary style of the novel (recounting to us the disturbing events that transpired in England and across the continent in Transylvania from letters, diary entries, ship’s log, and news articles), its fully-staged enactment incorporates scenes of Mina reading out loud from a newspaper and Professor Abraham Van Helsing presenting a lecture and conducting a follow-up question-and-answer period in direct address to his audience, both of which recall Stoker’s format.

Under Vasile’s clear direction, an excellent cast of six skillfully captures the tense Gothic sensibility of the frightening story, defines the personalities of the characters, and distinguishes their ethnicities and classes with convincing accents (though, as is often the case, Van Helsing sounds decidedly German, instead of his less-familiar native Dutch). Neena Boyle turns in an outstanding characterization of Mina that is equal parts strong, intelligent, and loyal to her friends, colleagues, and fiancé, conflicted and reticent about revealing the secrets of her past, and sexualized by Dracula’s blood lust. Connor Behm does fine double duty as the undead Count and the insect-eating madman Renfield (almost unrecognizable in his switch from one to the other), and the entire ensemble – Josh Tewell as the dedicated vampire-slayer Van Helsing; Colleen Marker as the vampire’s sleepwalking victim Lucy Westenra; Gil Johnson as Dr. Jack Seward, head of the asylum in which Renfield is confined, who has a romantic interest in Lucy and a shared confidence with Mina; and Anthony Crosby as Mina’s missing fiancé Jonathan Harker, who barely makes his escape from Dracula and a pack of howling wolves – brings just the right emotions and demeanors to the portrayals and commitment to the dramatic climax (fight choreography by Jacqueline Holloway), with its evocative device of having the antagonists circle around each other, like wolves hunting their prey.

Joshua Tewell. Photo by Emma Stern.

Joshua Tewell. Photo by Emma Stern.

The cast is dressed in authentic period-style costumes, including the Count’s iconic cape. Portable studio lights illuminate the scenes and cast ominous shadows from the gravestones, and eerie sound effects, with the clapping of horses’ hooves, the howls of wolves, and vintage classical music, further enhance the mood (notwithstanding a brief power outage in the first performance, which was quickly corrected by a back-up generator, and during which the actors remained fully in character). Set and props are minimal, just enough to indicate scene shifts to the different locales in Europe and the objects and totems that are integral to the plot. What more do you need than a compelling cast, focused direction, and spooky surroundings to tell a hair-raising story in the darkness of night?

When you go (and you should!) be advised that the gates open at 6 pm for the 7:00 show, and free parking is available at the lot across the street from the cemetery’s main entrance. Attendees are encouraged to bring a folding chair and flashlight, and to dress warmly. Hot spiked apple cider cocktails (“spiders”!), wine, and beer are served at each performance.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.

Dracula plays through Saturday, October 28, 2017, at The Mechanical Theater, performing at Laurel Hill Cemetery – 3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the office at (215) 228-8200, or purchase them online.

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