Vampires need no introduction, so here's mine: They're blood-drinking, immortal power addicts. Legendarily, undead creatures have preyed on the living in many civilizations. Bram Stoker sucked the life force from the works of Transylvanian folklore scholar Emily Gerard for his 1897 novel Dracula. His immensely popular book, in turn, has been drained of its essence by many adapters. Playwright Kate Hamill's version is Dracula: a feminist revenge fantasy, currently running at Augustana College. But this show is probably not what you think it is.
For one thing, the word "revenge" doesn't fit, unless a woman failing to hop-to on her husband's command, or a different woman defending another with “Let her speak,” equals vengeance. Furthermore, the word "feminist" does not denote a stage full of strident ball-breakers yelling about fish without bicycles. This is a delightful, slightly skewed take on an iconic tale. Hamill has adapted several classic novels for the stage, with her own playful twists. This work is fairly new, having premiered in 2020, and Augustana's production is directed by Jennifer Popple, the college's assistant professor of theatre arts, with Allison McPeak as assistant director.
Jean Tegtmeyer gives an affecting, memorable portrayal of Renfield. Woeful, rapturous, yearning, and smug, the character here is Mrs. Renfield, a poet in a mental institution, and a crawling, sprawling supplicant who prays to Dracula as "Father," fervently anticipating her reward for her faithfulness. Renfield is onstage when the house opens and remains so, dimly lit, throughout the show and intermission, making us feel her interminable imprisonment – an achingly constant reminder of what the vampire has done to just this one victim alone.
James Wheeler, a 2021 Augie theatre-arts grad returning for this project, plays Dracula – a physically imposing, charming, convivial fellow (at first, anyway) with wealth and a god complex. The character is both an intimidating foe and a petty, contemptible, self-congratulatory blowhard, but Wheeler lands some very funny line reads, too. Anya Giordano as Drusilla and Maddie Miller as Marilla are perpetually hungry vampire sister-wives, though they're little more than Drac's servants. Giordana has a creepy, zombie-like physicality, while Miller threatens with menacing strength. Each actor also gets in some good one-liners in incidental roles.
Noah Johnson plays Jonathan, the unfortunate solicitor whom Dracula hired preparatory to buying land in England. Jonathan's customary discomfiture signals the horrors to come, but the portrayal is at times deliberately comedic, vaudeville-style. Johnson has an impressive range – he was also amusing, though mostly silent, in Augustana's The Memo in May, and likable and genuine in his goth garb in Tartuffe last October. Catherine Karn portrays Mina, Jonathan's wife, as intelligent and forthright, with a slightly befuddled air. Who wouldn't be befuddled, what with all the strange goings-on? (Remember, these folks have never even heard of vampires.) Though she's therefore often unsure how to proceed, Mina takes action and pitches in hard, but keeps her own mind.
Gianna Zampogna plays Mina's school chum Lucy – vibrant and lively, until Dracula preys upon her. The changes in Lucy's character throughout the show are well-played and genuinely tragic, and I grieved. Jack Pawlak portrays Dr. Seward, Lucy's fiancé and head of Renfield's asylum, and his bluster and quasi-polite objections to any statement by a woman provide humor (though they're depressingly true-to-life). Seward's development during the story is touching, as well. Emma Watts is Dr. Van Helsing, who is utterly convincing and irresistibly charismatic as a vampire hunter with a wonderfully refreshing cut-the-BS persona. The sole American, she has difficulty making the Brits believe that Dracula is real, and immensely dangerous. Among other insights, Van Helsing points out that women's assertions of the supernatural – oral traditions, as they've historically been barred from reading or writing – are often dismissed as old wives' tales. (Hey – old wives have seen some things.) Also, we realize that due to archaic laws, Jonathan "owns" Mina in enlightened England, as surely as Dracula "owns" his wives in backwater Transylvania.
Meanwhile, this Dracula's visual aspects were expertly done, and I've got to cheer dialect coach Ben Gougeon, as everyone's various accents were consistent and marvelous. The weakest aspect in Popple's production – or at least in its second-to-last rehearsal – are the long scene changes; on Tuesday night, they were completed in deathly silence, with no transition music, and needlessly stretched out the run time.
Though I enjoyed this production, and the ending offered hope, I didn't leave feeling avenged. The Victorian zeitgeist regarding gender roles is distressingly similar to today's. How many times have I been sneeringly informed, "You're not to my taste," as Dracula does here? I walked warily to my car in the dark, musing how hard-won rights are disappearing. Economic injustice, harassment, abuse – even murder by our own partners – are still daily threats, even in America. At the height of the pandemic, I read of a man telling a friend that due to COVID-19, he was always nervous in public, his anxiety spiking whenever he saw anyone on the street. She said, "That's how women feel all the time." The truest word in the play's title is "fantasy," because right now, equality is just that.
Dracula: a feminist revenge fantasy runs at Augustana College's Brunner Theatre Center (3750 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island IL) through October 15, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)794-7806 and visiting Augustana.edu/tickets.