Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This stage 'Dracula' eschews cheap shocks in favor of authentic Gothic dread

Posted By on Tue, Oct 11, 2016 at 12:25 PM

click to enlarge Frank Casado and Rachel Comeau star in Jeremy Seghers' production of Dracula at Carmine Boutique. - PHOTO BY THEVONHOFFMAN.COM
  • Photo by TheVonHoffman.com
  • Frank Casado and Rachel Comeau star in Jeremy Seghers' production of Dracula at Carmine Boutique.

Movie maniacs like Leatherface and Michael Myers may get top billing at Orlando’s haunted houses, but they are mere infants in comparison to the original supernatural stalker, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And I can’t imagine a more appropriate place to encounter the Prince of Darkness than Carmine Boutique, the North OBT wonderland of taxidermy terrors and antique oddities that producer-director Jeremy Seghers has transformed into an immersive insane asylum for this thrilling theatrical trip to Transylvania.

The blood-sucker’s story has been interpreted by everyone from Tod Browning to Mel Brooks. While Seghers’ staging of the iconic vampire epic starts with the 1996 script by Steven Dietz, its true tonal inspiration seems to be the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film (a favorite of mine as well), eschewing cheap shocks and campy comedy in favor of Grand Guignol Gothic dread leavened with a deadpan dash of gallows humor. Like all of Seghers’ recent shows, the venue itself becomes an uncredited actor, as the audience is surrounded by the story visually – with action occurring on all sides of the room – and aurally, thanks to a cinematic soundtrack that blends unsettling orchestral tones with anachronistic but lyrically appropriate pop (including a nod to Tom Waits’ role in the Coppola movie).

After crafting (with designer Jamie DeHay) an ideally eerie environment, Seghers also scored with his selection of stars. Actors like Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman have left big fangs to fill, but Frank Casado is more than up to the throat-tearing task. Forget the slicked-back widow’s peak and Sesame Street cape; with vulpine mane and penetrating stare, Casado looks remarkably like historical images of Vlad the Impaler, and invests Dracula with a predatory passion that feel authentically animalistic. At the same time, Rachel Comeau may look a bit like a young Winona Ryder, but she digs much deeper into Mina’s inner life, adding shades of proto-feminism to a character often misinterpreted as a damsel in distress.
While this cursed couple gets top billing, it’s Christian Kelty’s Renfield that snatches – and bites the bloody head off – the show. Serving as the fourth-wall-breaking emcee, Renfield is present through the entire show, either caged in the center of the audience, or straight-jacketed and swinging from the ceiling like the bastard spawn of Hannibal Lechter and Baron Harkonnen. Whether declaiming demented odes to his murderous master, or graphically regurgitating chunks of gore, Kelty succeeds mightily in making viewers feel they are in the midst of madness.

Seghers’ show satisfied my hunger for an extra-dark bittersweet Halloween treat, but there’s a razor blade or two to beware of. I applaud the technical ambition of Dracula’s environmental presentation, especially in the face of Hurricane Matthew, which delayed opening night by two days. But the unconventional blocking occasionally obscured key actions from view, and some performers had difficulty projecting across the room above the background music. Timmy Walczak is suitably stoic and cerebral as Seward, but Dennis Enos’ subdued Van Helsing isn’t the eccentric Ahab Stoker intended to oppose Moby Drac, and Sean Kerrigan’s inspiration as Harker appears to have been “just like Keanu, but slower and with less emotion”; not even Dracula’s demonic brides (Brenna Arden and Ashleigh Ann Gardner) could get much of a rise out of him, much less Mina, with whom he shares zero chemistry.

It doesn’t help that Dietz’s adaptation, while otherwise remarkably faithful to the novel’s text, inverts the story’s structure and turns Harker’s travels from prologue into flashback, draining the first act of narrative momentum and demoting Harker from protagonist to plot prop. These flaws, however, don’t drive a stake through the show’s heart, and when the full cast comes together for moments of climactic chaos, what beautiful music they make. If you are looking for simple surface-level shocks this Halloween season, you’ve got plenty of other frightful options. For a taste of true terror, try watching Kelty devour a dead rat inches from your face; I promise it will cure your appetite for candy right quick.

Dracula by Steven Dietz

Thursday, Friday, Saturday (Oct. 13, 14, 15) at 8 p.m.
Carmine Boutique, 2708 N. Orange Blossom Trail
Tickets available at Eventbrite, $23

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