The room is black – pitch-black – save for the sallow shaft of amber leaking from a lone lantern, which occasionally illuminates shadowy figures lurking in cobweb-hung corners. A frantic voice emerges from the darkness, muttering of unknown horrors, and is joined by scuttling squeaks whispering from every direction. Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream rises as the unmistakable silhouette of rattus norvegicus is glimpsed in the faltering glow, and is rapidly silenced by a blinding burst of gunfire.
And the really scary stuff is only getting started …
The above isn’t ripped from any theme-park haunt; these frights are of a more literary nature. In celebration of their 25th season, Orlando Shakespeare Theater is reviving one of their oldest and most popular Halloween originals, Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Adapted by OST’s artistic director, Jim Helsinger, the one-man show was first performed here in 1995, was revived in 1996 and 2003, and has been picked up by other theaters around the country from Cape May to Kansas.
Michael Carleton, who directed the first two OST mountings, returns to helm the show again, with actor John P. Keller (of last season’s Sense and Sensibility and Othello) portraying the Victorian solicitor turned vampiric victim, his demonic client and all the novel’s other iconic characters. The show opens tonight, Oct. 9, and runs through Nov. 10, but I attended a rehearsal last week to interview Carleton and Keller about revisiting this tale of terror with today’s audiences.
LAC: Why revive Dracula now?
Michael Carleton: It was the first show that Jim Helsinger did as artistic director. People kept saying we should do it again, and Jim was like, “Eh, I don’t know, we’ve done it a lot.” And then he realized that no one [currently working] here at the theater had actually seen the 2003 [production]. It’s been 10 years since we did it, so it seemed like a confluence of events … that it would be good to do it again.
What makes this adaptation different from others?
MC: [Other versions] do not adhere to the source material … they all change Stoker’s story. Even the movie that is titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula changes the story. In the Helsinger adaptation, it’s 95 percent Stoker’s words. Nothing occurs in this that does not occur in the novel … we don’t add a love story.
John P. Keller: It’s really the original myth … all the original elements of how to kill a vampire, of how a vampire exists. They don’t sparkle in the sunlight. They’re not romanticized, there’s no real redeeming qualities. They’re unfortunate souls … none of the other characters want to become a vampire.
How does this production differ from 2003’s?
MC: This is actually [version] 4.0 now. Even in theater, technology advances and we can do more tricks. When we first did this show in ’95, our sound effects were all done on cassette tape … if I wanted reverb I put a microphone down the hall in the bathroom. And now I sit there on my iMac and mix the sound.
Compare your live rodent co-star Mina (named after the novel’s heroine) with rats you’ve acted with previously.
JPK: The other production of Dracula we did [in Alabama] also had a live rodent. We had a rodent and an understudy rodent, which had to share a dressing room. Mina is the only contracted rodent, so she can probably make a lot more demands.
Is the show’s tone more “spooky” or “scary”?
MC: It splits the difference. There’s a lot of “telling ghost stories around the campfire,” but I have absolutely no doubt that you will hear honest-to-goodness screams from the audience, and people will jump out of their seats. Not because we have a bogeyman jumping out from behind them … it’s because the actor is totally intense.
Is Dracula still relevant in today’s superhero- and zombie-obsessed pop culture?
MC: I think zombies are passé now. It’s gone in waves when vampires were hotter. There was a wave with Anne Rice … there was a wave with Twilight, which was silly, but a wave. But I don’t know that vampires have ever really lost their interest, because it is such a primal thing: Someone sucks your blood … and gives you immortality.
JPK: In this play the monster has all the superpowers, and the heroes are just normal everyday people who are thrown into this world and have to fight for their lives. They don’t have Spidey-sense, they’re just normal people who have to figure it out. That captures my imagination.
MC: I’m amazed at how many young people come out to these things. … I think there’s a constant throb of dark need for younger [viewers], which is great if we can get young crowds in for this, which I’m sure we will. The first production was 17 years ago; those kids have kids now.
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