Review: ‘Dracula’ at We Happy Few

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Halloween may be over, but the horror season is still in full swing. We Happy Few Theatre Company invites you to “listen to the children of the night” with Dracula, a repertoire production, at CHAW, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. It is the third in their month-long horror trifecta which began mid-October and continues through November 10th.

Left to Right: Grant Cloyd, Meg Lowey, Jon Reynolds and Kerry McGee. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher
Left to Right: Grant Cloyd, Meg Lowey, Jon Reynolds and Kerry McGee. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher

Imagine, please, a book on tape- excuse me- on CD, (showing my age again, like a lace-trimmed taffeta slip). Imagine that instead of the book being read by the author, it is read by a cast of voices, male and female, portraying all of the book’s characters. Imagine the book is written in a lofty antiquated tone, like perhaps Shakespeare or one of the Brontës with many writerly embellishments and descriptions. Imagine the animation of the actors making the language easy to understand. Imagine adding music and shadow puppets to supplement the actors. Now imagine all of this in your living room, only the living room is cooler than your living room because it has an accordion in it. Cease your imaginings and behold: the author is Bram Stoker, the book is Dracula and the actors are DC’s We Happy Few.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, was written in the tradition of “invasion literature” popular in England at that time. It was not the first example of a vampire, however; predating it by up to 100 years were an assortment of poems and stories referencing the blood-thirsty netherworld beings of Carpathian folklore.

We Happy Few’s promotional copy includes words such as “faithful adherence to Stoker’s text” and “immersive staging” which sound intimidating, but fear not (or, well, DO, but not because of this), as “faithful adherence” means “authentic language right out of the book” rather than “we’re going to read you the WHOLE THING.” Immersive staging is not (as I imagined) a carwash-like profusion of gauzy dangling tendrils from above and artificial fog from below, but rather being seated around the “stage” with 27 other people, actors brushing by for entrances and exits, addressing the audience directly, offering morsels of food.

The show, sorry- theatrical event – begins slowly and with great precision, introducing us to at least four storylines, and the characters therein, all of whom are portrayed by the same four actors. As the story continues, the pace picks up to brisk, then hurried, then frantic, leading the storylines to eventually converge, culminating in a climactic scene of horror to delight fans of the fantastical and frightening. And then, a song!

Director Robert Pike conceives a fast-paced tale, and his talented performers deliver with pizzazz and flourishes. Jack Novak as Dracula is graceful, expressive and mostly seen as a shadow. Meg Lowey, playing (among others, but primarily) Mina Murray, is lovely, cool, smooth, and a most excellent musician. Her singing voice makes delightful a thing which rightfully should be horrible: this sort of juxtaposition seems in keeping with We Happy Few’s aesthetic. Playing the Russian ship’s captain and Van Helsing, Jon Reynolds is amusing with wonderful voices and spot-on timing. Kerry McGee, billed also as Artistic Director of Theatrical Events, plays Jonathan Harker, Lucy, and Renfield by turns and with such distinctiveness and energy that one feels she might’ve taken on the role of Mina also, except for the awkwardness of staging. She demonstrates as well a particular prowess with the tambourine.

Kerry McGee. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher
Kerry McGee. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher

Sound is provided by vocalizations, clapping, stomping, and an array of musical instruments, including the aforementioned accordion, which, in the interests of accuracy, I must say is, in fact, the accordion’s cousin, known to musicians as a Harmonium. These are all very effective, especially in the early part of the show, when we need a little more guidance. Props to Dan Smeriglio, Lighting Designer, as the lighting tech is so subtle and perfect that I didn’t even notice it, which is unusual for me. Paige O’Malley provides Victorian-esque costuming that is suggestive rather than period-accurate, with a focus on mobility and quick changes. I’m never confused about whom I’m looking at from moment to moment, a mighty feat, considering.

Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is easy enough to find, though perhaps tricky to enter if one is mobility-compromised. There are stairs to the entrance- I don’t specifically recall an elevator, but I admit to not having investigated that angle extensively. The “Somewhere In The Neighborhood” style of parking made me nervous about my car being ticketed, as signage featured “NO” quite prominently. If you have the option of arriving alternatively, I’d suggest it.

In their rendition of the authentic tale of Dracula, We Happy Few delivers an unconventional form of performance most usually associated with improvisational theatre. They achieve this with only simple technical effects that yield high dramatic impact and exclusively invisible gore. They thus achieve a high-touch, sophisticated event, a condensed Dracula with wit and dramatic tension, which is literary, intellectual, challenging and innovative, and sometimes, extremely funny.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

We Happy Few’s Dracula plays through November 10 at CHAW, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. For tickets, go online.

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