REVIEW: Dracula takes risks, offers rewards

Royal Canadian Theatre Company touring production of classic novel offers plenty of creepy thrills.

Count Dracula (Kurtis Maguire) toys with Lucy Wells (Hannah Williams) during a performance of Dracula at Surrey Arts Centre Oct. 10.

Count Dracula (Kurtis Maguire) toys with Lucy Wells (Hannah Williams) during a performance of Dracula at Surrey Arts Centre Oct. 10.

There’s life in the old vampire yet.

The John L. Balderston-Hamilton Deane 1927 stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula, still packs its share of chills and thrills, well-demonstrated by director Ellie King’s touring Royal Canadian Theatre Company production (now moving on from Surrey Arts Centre to Vancouver’s Metro Theatre, until Oct. 24).

A lot of that is courtesy of the original script – and its lean and pragmatic paring-down of Stoker’s plot to create what has become a warhorse of old-school stage hokum.

Even with the 1890s “steampunk” look provided by designer Andrea Hughes – plus some ingenious, cog-turning set changes – it remains a brisk, economical, tale.

The simplified storyline focuses on the unnatural influence the transplanted Transylvanian, Count Dracula (Kurtis Maguire), is exerting over young and innocent Lucy Seward (Elyse Maloway) – daughter of a doctor who runs a sanitarium in the English countryside – and the impact her “illness” has on distraught fiancé Jonathan Harker (Steven Masson).

There’s a fly and spider-devouring maniac on hand to elevate the creepiness factor (burly, bellicose Aaron Stewart, in good, twitchy form as Renfield), and some welcome comedy relief in the form of a sarcastic maid, Miss Wells (Hannah Williams) and a droll, Scouse-accented sanitarium attendant, Butterworth (Jamie O’Neill).

But Balderston and Deane understood that the real core of their play is the battle of wills between the vampire and his tireless nemesis, occult expert Van Helsing, summoned to consult on Lucy’s case by a worried Dr. Seward (a pitch-perfect, if not always line-perfect Paul Fisher).

By transforming Dr. Abraham Van Helsing into Dr. Anna Van Helsing (Kathryn Stewart), King has opened the door on intriguing possibilities for a feminist re-think of their conflict – and an opportunity to intensify the play’s subtext of 19th and early-20th century sexual repression – though neither avenue is fully explored in the present production.

While this was the play that established a smooth, aristocratic take on Count Dracula, King has chosen to take a further risk in emphasizing a more animalistic aspect of the vampire. Those expecting the suavity of Bela Lugosi – and later, even more romantic interpretations – may be surprised by the unsettling freakishness of Maguire’s performance, enhanced by a stunning stage effect that I won’t spoil here.

Whether this works will be largely a matter of taste. In any case, no matter what approach is taken with Dracula, it rests on Van Helsing to supply the ballyhoo for this particular ‘freakshow’ –  establishing both tone and pace for the piece. Unfortunately, while the red-haired, statuesque Stewart undoubtedly cuts a fine figure as the re-imagined Van Helsing, in the performance I saw she lacked the requisite intensity and focus to drive the action at key moments, and didn’t develop sufficient momentum to propel the plot past all logical objections.

The show’s Jonathan and Lucy serve the script well, however. After a somewhat bleating beginning, Masson settles nicely into the role of Jonathan, turning what could be a stock character into a genuinely touching figure, while Maloway’s nuanced, thoughtful performance – particularly as Lucy falls further under Dracula’s spell – demonstrates anew that she is a talent to watch for in future.

Dracula will also be at the ACT in Maple Ridge from Oct. 27-31.

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