By Philip Pearce
Instead of trick or treating I spent Halloween night watching Monterey Peninsula College Theatre Company’s version of a new dramatized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Director Gary Bolen is skilled and perceptive enough to know that, however tweaked and updated, this is still the kind of creaky Victorian melodrama that only works if you send it up. Way, way up. He and a largely youthful cast go at it with zest and determination.
As Count Dracula, Matthew T. Pavellas is both spooky and ridiculous as he stalks the boards in five-inch high boots, flaps his cloak, occasionally howls and keeps an eye out for another female throat to bite. I was surprised how seldom he succeeded early on, but that was just Act 1. When he hit his stride after intermission, an enthusiastic opening night audience, many of them in costume, cheered and applauded each time he bared his fangs and went for the jugular.
As the story goes, the Count pays frequent evening visits to his neighborhood insane asylum, run by the unsuspecting Dr. Thomas Seward (Dale Thompson). Is it coincidence or Halloween that the two plays I saw last weekend both feature the staff and residents of crazy houses? Anyway, Seward feels bereaved and puzzled: in spite of repeated transfusions, his late lamented lady love Mina Grant has been pronounced dead from loss of blood. A Dutch colleague named Abram Van Helsing (James Brady), whose hobby is the occult, suggests Seward quit researching tropical diseases and consider a troubling second opinion. Is Mina in fact only dead by day? Does she come back to life after sundown to stalk the local graveyard in search of life-giving blood? Armed with stakes, a crucifix and holy water—Van Helsing won’t go anywhere without a bottle tucked into his waistcoat pocket—the two friends check on Mina and settle her into a peaceful death by driving a stake into her heart. Patrons in first and second row center were warned in advance, but nobody seemed to get squirted with stage gore on opening night.
As Mina, Anjoli Johnson deserves praise and sympathy. All she is asked to do all evening is get herself briefly bitten in the dark by a red-eyed monster during the prologue and thereafter simply appear as a comatose zombie in a casket.
After dealing with Mina, the two troubled sleuths set out to prove Van Helsing’s second theory: Seward’s fiancée’s plight was the work of the mysterious Count Dracula. The two medics join forces with pistol-packing Jonathan Harker (a stalwart and determined Douglas Johnson) and his fiancée Lucy Westphal (the lovely-looking and appropriately demure Taylour Matz). Brady, Thompson, Matz and Johnson are concerned and convincing enough but the good guys of gothic horror fiction are usually more predictable and, I’m afraid, almost always less interesting than their evil antagonists.
If I remember rightly, Dr Frankenstein’s monster had only one bride (Elsa Lanchester). Dracula has three, played with plenty of hissing and snaky fangwork by Melissa Kamnikar, Keeley Ostes and Taylor Safina. The count harbors a longing to add Lucy as bride number four, but that effort fails and (if you don’t want me to spoil a key surprise plot point skip to the next paragraph) Matz turns out to be the only female in the whole company who doesn’t end up either (a) dead or (b) a practicing vampire.
Also on hand at the asylum are a rather unsuccessful inmate restrainer and orderly named Norbert Briggs (the energetic Saxon Butler) and his Irish medical assistant girlfriend Margaret Sullivan, played feisty but doomed by Lauren Hoelscher.
Last but not least, Matt Pardue offers a brilliantly varied series of insinuating campy whispers, snarling gymnastic evasions and howls of terror in the role of the asylum’s resident lunatic and Dracula’s secret henchman Renfield. It’s unarguably the most interesting role and top acting job of the production. And it’s all the better for Pardue’s being allowed to smirk and threaten in a more or less American accent. Everyone else in the cast works, not all that successfully, in a potpourri of European dialects ranging from Cockney to Transylvanian.
I have to be honest: for me decaying Addams family houses, shadowy crypts and coffins with Von Stroheim background organ music, don‘t really cut it. I hold more with the Hitchcock conviction that innocent-looking objects like coffee cups, wine bottles and cigarette cases and familiar settings like railway carriages and motel shower rooms can actually be heaps scarier than all that traditional gothic spook paraphernalia.
But MPC is just poking fun at all that, of course, so if you go, you’ll probably have a bloody good time watching them do it.