ISU School of Theatre resurrects “Dracula”

By Dan Craft

NORMAL, Ill. – You can’t keep a good theatrical warhorse down – even with a stake through the heart and its head whacked off.

So just in time for a certain pagan October celebration, Illinois State University’s School of Theatre is putting a spade to the grave, all the better to disinter one of the most enduring of all stage barnstormers, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” which is running through Halloween weekend.

And they’re doing it with some new blood, including a series of eerie magical illusions by an associate of magic team Penn & Teller.

The Transylvanian bloodsucker’s adventures in Victorian London have been thrilling stage and screen audiences for more than 80 years now.

The adaptation ISU is using is a more recently (1996) refurbished take by American playwright Steven Dietz.

Ironically, one of its claims to fame is that it is more faithful to the Stoker novel than many of its freely adapted predecessors, including the 1924 Hamilton Dean stage original (basis for the legendary 1931 film version with Bela Lugosi).

But it rearranges and elides along the way, mentioning characters like Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, but not showing them, and turning Jonathan Harker’s Transylvanian trip to Castle Dracula into a flashback.

At the same time, notes director Christopher Morino, it avoids the temptation to camp it up and spoof the 1924 version’s arch theatrics, something not resisted in the celebrated Broadway revival of the 1970s movie with Frank Langella.

There is humor inherent in some of the dialogue and situations, the director says, but no one in the cast will be throwing knowing winks to the audience.

Along the way, subtle design embellishments will up the ante of edginess, including some near-subliminal fudging with the Victorian time frame.

Morino calls it a legacy of the alternative design movement known as “steampunk,” which takes the modern and makes it look Victorian.

That may explain why some of the fashions don’t really add up in the traditional Victorian sense (women’s hemlines are cut higher) and why some of the highly choreographed movements of the undead have an Asian vibe running through them.

More than anything, though, ISU’s “Dracula” is zeroing in on the reverberations that follow in the wake of what Morino calls “this foreigner, this person from a place they don’t know – a dark land quite foreboding in and of itself.”

Foreboding, that is, to Victorian London, where every desire known to man is kept buttoned down or bottled up.

“Dracula represents a being that, in some ways, awakens a sense of sexuality in Victorian women and is threatening to the Victorian male. The last thing the Victorian male wanted was his wife throwing her corset away and finding that sort of sense of an animalistic quality.”

But throw and find they do.

To conjure that sense of sudden sensual eruption in a new and unsettling way, Morino says “I knew that in our modern day that the guy with the cape and tuxedo isn’t so scary anymore, that archetype doesn’t work for us.”

What the ISU production is latching onto is Stoker’s core idea “of a being who is neither human nor all the way an unrecognizable creature – he’s an in-between, an ‘other.’ So our primary function is to set up a being with an entirely different vocabulary than we would normally be comfortable with. All we know is that we’re uncomfortable watching this person – but we can’t stop watching him.”