Triad Stage takes ‘Dracula’ seriously
Preston Lane’s script for Triad Stage’s Dracula skillfully and seriously adapts the spirit and scope of Bram Stoker’s 512-page novel into a brisk 90-minute running time.
The most famous theatrical version made a star of the handsome and hypnotic Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi but confined Stoker’s sprawling action to a single household and transformed his monstrous title character into a charmingly seductive demon lover. But Lane took a different approach rooted in Stoker’s more horrific text.
In an email, the playwright said he’d been long fascinated by the story, which he first encountered via the 1977 Frank Langella film that, like the 1931 Lugosi one, was based more on the 1927 play than the 1897 novel.
“When I finally read the book, I was thrilled by the expansive narrative,” Lane wrote. “I wanted to use theatrical storytelling to capture the time, scope, and space of the novel.”
In doing so, he made a surprising but effective choice to have two actors play the Count.
“Reading Stoker, I was surprised at how different Dracula in Transylvania was from Dracula in London,” Lane wrote. “I wanted to capture that sense of both an old, insulated evil and the new life it discovers with new blood.”
Duality is a major theme of this production. Most adaptations give short shrift to either the flirtatious Lucy or heroic Mina. Lane’s decision to feature both women and write the roles so that the same actress could play each reflected more than a desire to cut the size of the cast.
“For me, there is a sense that within all of us, there is the ability to be a vampire,” Lane explained. “With the characters of Lucy and Mina, we are given an opportunity to see a full range of human responses to something evil in our midst.”
Stoker gave Mina more dialogue and agency than the heroine possesses in most adaptations of his novel (notable exceptions include Agnes Morehead in Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play and Judi Bowker in the great 1979 BBC version). Lane went even further.
“I very much wanted this small band of vampire hunters to be engaged not in a romantic story, but one of conflict and struggle. Mina is a vampire hunter who completely resists men’s attempts to dismiss her abilities. As a widow, she no longer has to be a Victorian wife, but has the freedom to assert herself.”
Another change he made to Stoker’s narrative was to have it told by a child, with a young actress playing both narrator and multiple victims.
“I believe that a childlike wonder is necessary when approaching theater,” Lane noted. “She is both the eyes through which we see the story and represents those most threatened by the invasive evil. I took the idea of Lucy’s child victims and created a framing device that asks us to approach the story with belief and wonder.”
And fear, of course. Without going into spoilers, Lane does a very effective twist on Van Helsing’s closing address to the audience in both the 1927 play and 1931 film.
“I wanted to make the audience look over their shoulders to make sure the person behind them isn’t eyeing their neck,” Lane wrote. “The framing device is designed to make the fear more palpable.”
One of the major assets of this production is New York actress Maggie Thompson, the only adult woman in the cast. I was invited to the first reading, at which Thompson impressed by immediately distinguishing not only Mina from Lucy, but from the two very different vampires she also plays.
“It started with the voice,” she told me. “I had to make a distinction between them just for clarity’s sake. Lucy has a sort of Estuary accent, whereas Mina’s is so clipped it could cut glass.”
I told her that to my Yank ears, Mina’s accent sounded as authentic as that of Curt James, who uses his real one for Jonathan Harker.
“When I was 8 years old, I went to bed with the Harry Potter audiobooks read by Jim Dale, so every single night I listened to Jim Dale’s voice, and now I feel just as comfortable in that accent as in my natural American bicoastal elitist one,” she said with a laugh.
She called “poor Lucy” a “trial run” for Dr. Seward and Van Helsing, the men who fail to save her. “It’s Mina who, in the wake of Lucy’s death, teaches them what it means to actually respect a woman and take her seriously.”
She said that she’d read the Stoker novel many times.
“Dracula is one of my favorite books, but is not really scary in the modern sense, although it must have been very much so to 19th-century readers. What struck me most about Preston Lane’s adaptation is its sense of immediacy and terror. I joke all the time that one of my favorite novels is just people riding trains and writing letters to each other about how scared they are, often at the same time, while Mina types and takes notes and juggles railroad schedules. It’s a slow burn. I think what’s been exciting about this process is taking this story and making it as scary as it was for Victorian Londoners while keeping the book’s period, setting and so many of its details.”
Dathan B. Williams, whose magnificent voice reminds me of the great William Marshall, plays Van Helsing in the play’s London scenes and Dracula in a Transylvanian flashback. For this, he had to learn two different accents.
He said that, while mastering the challenge of going from a Dutch one to that of a Hungarian aristocrat (Transylvania was part of Hungary in the 19th century, and Stoker makes it clear the Count is Hungarian rather than Romanian), he became fascinated by the characters’ similarities.
“They’re both outsiders approaching this society from different angles. It’s a useful, thorough line.”
Something that fascinated him about the title character is the Count’s honesty. “Everything he says to Jonathan Harker is absolutely true. He never lies.”
Williams, like the famous cinematic Dracula Christopher Lee, has benefitted from musical training. He attended a series of Jesuit institutions from elementary school to his undergraduate college, which did not have a theater department. “But they did have a Jesuit priest with an MFA in Music and Theatre who’d studied at Stuttgart, and not only did I do a lot of theater, but I got to sing with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra and study with a voice teacher from the Peabody Institute. I ended up doing a lot of opera and musical theater, and my undergraduate thesis was on the social implications of Stephen Sondheim.”
In graduate school, he sang with the ensemble company of the Cincinnati Opera, then was in the first MFA acting class at Carnegie Melon. “I made my Broadway debut in Showboat, have done some national tours, and this is my 46th regional theater contract.”
He said that he hopes to see a lot of students in the audience for Dracula.
“One subtext here is the question of what an immigrant is, and the fear factor surrounding it. So many more people were coming into London, and the question of ‘blood,’ in its figurative meaning, was strongly linked to that, and to Dracula’s need to come and be part of that. Why does this outsider want to be part of this new society?”
He also believes it’s important that an African-American is playing Van Helsing and Dracula. “I hope that audiences also associate what it takes for people not in the overwhelming culture to assimilate to it.”
Curt James, who plays Jonathan Harker opposite Williams as Count Dracula in Transylvania, and Count Dracula opposite Williams as Van Helsing in London, is also portraying two very different strangers in strange lands.
“Jonathan has such an interesting journey that we really found in rehearsal,” James said. “He moves from being optimistic and almost pompous to someone facing the loss of everything he loves.”
James was born in Des Moines, but you’d never know it from his natural accent.
“I’m an American-born citizen, but that’s not what I present as, which generally starts an interesting conversation about identity.”
His father was in the U.S. air force, “but mum’s from Manchester,” and James lived in the U.S. until he was 5.
“When they divorced, she took me back to England. I spent 13 years in Manchester, then moved to London when I was 18.”
He studied at Guild Hall School of Music and Drama at the Barbican, worked in plays and operas “and randomly found my way into puppetry.” This led him to the West End production of War Horse.
“They needed someone to come over here for a tour, and my being a U.S. citizen made it easier. I ended up doing 42 cities in 50 weeks, then Tokyo.” He then realized that his U.S. citizenship also made it easier to pursue his longtime dream of living and working in New York, “where I now make my home and life.”
He said that he was fascinated by the idea of playing the London Dracula, who becomes younger in his new blood-rich environment, as not just a demonic lover, but a cult leader.
“We’ve been talking about the Emmy-winning Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, about the controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Oregon followers. What is it about some people that make others follow them and do anything for them? Dracula is an enormously powerful figure who gets what he wants, but his Achilles’ heel is his jealousy of religion, and of Christ’s presence in people’s lives.”
In interviewing director Eleanor Holdridge, I learned that her mother, Barbara Holdridge, co-founded Caedmon Records, the company that not only shaped my own love for theater, literature and Boris Karloff, but created the modern audiobook.
Holdridge told me that she spent much of her childhood listening to actors like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith.
“I grew up hearing Shakespeare and hanging out with theater people,” she explained. “When the actors said the words, I’d imagine the world they were moving through. A director needs to be able to read a script and do that.”
She worked in publishing for a while, then decided, “I just wanted to direct plays.” After graduating from Yale, “I freelanced all over for some years, then decided I wanted a home rather than being on the road all the time.” That led her to the directing program at the Catholic University of America in D.C., where she’s now the departmental chair.
Like Thompson, she loved Stoker’s novel in childhood. “But like so much I adored as a kid, I went ‘oh my God, it’s sexist’ upon rereading it as an adult. So, I really loved that Preston’s script wasn’t sexist, but also that it was seen through the eyes of a child, as I first read Dracula when one myself.”
She said that, while she loves the novel’s epistolary structure, “you can’t just read a bunch of letters and journal entries aloud on stage.” Plus, it was written for an audience that didn’t know who Dracula was, or even what vampires were.
“Nowadays, everyone knows some reiteration of the story. One of the goals of this production is to recapture that surprise and experience the growing horror of something we don’t want to believe in.”
She was struck by Lane’s reorganization of his source material. “I love how he accentuates the horror and makes the storytelling really interesting, with the flashbacks and the sense of the schism of time.”
But she also said that Lane retained what’s timeless about the story.
“It’s the sense of the horror of the unknown, and how every character represents something that keeps the darkness at bay,” Holdridge said. “Van Helsing is a bit of a Columbo, who pretends to be bumbling, but has a really sharp mind. It’s his intellect against the dark. Seward has his heart and compassion, which really comes out towards Renfield, whom Preston didn’t just treat as a campy fly-eating maniac, but someone in pain. And then there’s Mina’s incredible strength of will. She has loved and lost and deserves to be a warrior. The irony is the men’s desire to protect her might prove to be everyone’s undoing.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.