If not for Patrick Stinson’s direction and the cast’s performances (Cole Rauch’s and Tanya Smith’s in particular) adding an effectively creepy air, the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre’s Dracula would be a rather dull affair. Playwright Crane Johnson, it seems, would much rather describe vampiric events in his script than write so that anyone directing the play might show them. It’s not nearly as frightening, after all, to hear someone tell of bodies found or women bitten in the neck as it is to see these events happen before your very eyes.
Adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel, Johnson’s Dracula takes place in the English home – actually, just its study... for the entire show... – of Dr. Seward (John VanDeWoestyne), neighbor to Count Dracula (Doug Kutzli). Seward’s fiancé, Lucy (Smith), has taken ill with a strange disease involving a loss of blood and two pin pricks on her neck (gosh, what could that mean?), and is being cared for in Seward’s home with the help of her aunt, Mrs. Harker (Mary Pirch), and Seward’s maid, Abigail (Haley Courter). Dr. Seward is also observing an odd young man named Renfield (Rauch), and has called in metaphysics expert Professor Van Helsing (Erica VanderVelde) to help with his scientific study of the boy.
While Johnson’s script includes very little in terms of stage action, Stinson does, at least, stage one bloodsucking event, for which I was quite thankful. In it, Count Dracula drinks from the neck of Lucy in full sight of the audience; under dimmed lights, Smith’s body relaxes into Kutzli’s grip, she breathes sighs of pleasure, and runs her hand softly down her bosom and side. The overall effect is sensual and scary – Smith moves very slowly, as if in a trance – yet beyond that, there’s not much action in this Dracula, only descriptions of bats flying on the balcony, children and animals being killed, and a wolf running about.
Unfortunately, Smith’s time on stage is minimal. Fortunately, Rauch’s is not, and his characterization added tremendous interest to Friday night’s proceedings. Renfield is a scientific oddity, considered crazy for his penchant for eating flies, spiders, and birds, and claiming that their lives both give him life and continue on in him. Rauch lumbers about the stage in a monkey-like fashion – walking, for the most part, on his hands and feet with the gait of a primate – and his voice is a mix of falsetto and gravelly tones, which he impressively maintains throughout the performance. While I could argue that Rauch should also incorporate undertones of evil in his portrayal, I’m not sure that would make his performance as this curiously friendly and quite likable character any better.
Among the other cast members, VanDeWoestyne convincingly walks and speaks with the air of a man with status in society, while Courter’s voice quivers just enough to make her character’s fear and uncertainty palpable. Pirch is most notable when her Mrs. Harker is under hypnosis, as she speaks in the upper register of her voice and then stares (first blankly, then with looks of fright), and finally delivers a piercing shriek. VanderVelde makes good use of a sighed “Huh?” or “Ah!” before many of her lines, an audible manifestation of her internal motivation behind each sentence. And Kutzli maintains a distant, ethereal look in his eyes and a fairly consistent Transylvanian accent, clearly representing the iconic vampire.
Set in one room in which almost nothing frightening happens, Johnson’s script is flat-out boring. It’s to Stinson’s and his cast’s credit that the Showboat’s performance of Dracula is at all interesting or ominous. Or, frankly, worth seeing.
For tickets and information, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.