Steven Dietz’s Count Dracula doesn’t say, “I vant to drink your blood.” He is a minor character, seen far less frequently than he is talked about.
Neither is the playwright’s Prince of Darkness a classmate of Buffy the Vampire Slayer who stops off at HBO’s local convenience store on the way home to pick up a six-pack of “True Blood.”
Dietz’s “Dracula” was performed Oct. 17 and 18 at The Grand in Ellsworth. It will be staged again Friday and Saturday — Halloween and All Saints’ Day.
This playwright’s Dracula bears an uncanny resemblance to the guy Bram Stoker created in 1897 at the end of the Victorian era before movies, television and popular culture sank their teeth into him.
Stoker told his story through diaries, letters and news reports. Dietz’s “Dracula” unfolds slowly as the book does, and that makes pacing the two-act play difficult. An actor breaking the third wall to explain what is happening slows down the action of a story that theatergoers already know.
Director Ben Layman and cast worked hard earlier this month to overcome the problems inherent in the script. For the most part, they succeeded, except for Trevor Senter’s portrayal of Dracula.
In white makeup and the traditional black cape lined with red satin, the diminutive Senter seemed to be channeling Bela Lugosi, the film actor who became typecast as a vampire. Senter’s campy instead of scary portrayal of Dracula was one of the things Dietz was trying to avoid when he went back to the book for inspiration.
With Dracula onstage so seldom, Layman might have been truer to the script had he cast veteran community theater star Steve Gormley as the Prince of Darkness than as the bug-eating Renfield, whose habits are more suited to Senter’s talents.
Gormley, who often has played the romantic male lead in musicals, was delightfully cast against type and gave a spot-on portrayal of Renfield, the man Dracula made a mad slave. The actor is more than 6 feet tall, and his mere physicality and experienced stage presence would have made Dracula a frightening rather than a comic figure.
All of Layman’s other casting decisions were perfect. Jessica Riley and Nicolette Willow Yerxa captured the tight-laced young women constrained by the mores of Victorian society even when they weren’t in England. Both actresses bubbled with a yearning to be loved and a longing to be more and know more than society or the men in their lives would allow.
Adam Cousins and Joshua Raymond played the women’s love interests. Cousins portrayed Jonathan Harker as a man caught up in something he constantly struggled to comprehend, pulled along by events he could not get a handle on. Something about Cousins’ openness as an actor allowed him to create a vulnerable and unlikely vampire slayer. Those qualities also made him the sexiest guy onstage.
Raymond’s Dr. Seward was a dark and gloomy sort. His portrayal was a nice counterbalance to Harker’s sunnier disposition. The actor also gave the doctor a quiet determination that there is goodness in the fight, even though victory is rarely at hand.
As Van Helsing, the real vampire killer, Teke Wiggin seemed very comfortable in the mentor’s skin. Wiggin’s bio in the program said that “Dracula” was his “dramatic venture.” If it was his first time onstage, Wiggin knew something it often takes experienced actors years to learn — how to listen.
The set, designed by Tim McCormick, along with the lighting by Jeff Ferrell and beautiful costumes by Thelma Astbury and Linda Grindle were wonderful and worked well on The Grand’s shallow stage.
What literally saved the production from the script, however, was Layman’s music. His “Dracula” has a soundtrack and it perfectly underscores the mood of each scene and is what makes the audience squirm when it might otherwise giggle simply because it brought the wrong preconceptions to the show.
With this production, Layman proved he is an imaginative, creative and talented director. By swapping two actors’ roles, he most likely would have sent theatergoers home clutching their collars to their throats to protect them against being bitten rather than against a cold autumn wind.