The scariest thing about the Timber Lake Playhouse's world-premiere production of Dracula is the set, and I mean that as a compliment. Designed by Joseph C. Heitman, the industrial playing space includes a series of metallic walkways with perilous inclines, some 20 feet above the floor, and the walkways themselves are slightly askew. The best way I can describe Dracula's architecture is by saying that, if the set were an amusement-park attraction, you'd be both ecstatic and petrified about riding it.
Oh, and the set also revolves. New scenes and locales are established by spinning the edifice à la Les Miserables, and using this device expertly, director Brad Lyons creates some staggering visuals. A scene of solicitor Jonathan Harker (played, with wonderfully escalating hysteria, by Zack Powell) climbing a 1,000-foot-high tower is presented while stage pieces are in motion, and the effect is magical; if this Dracula were a film, and it certainly strives for the feel of one, the moment would make for a shot of Scorsesian coolness. And when the count (Daniel Trump) first takes Harker to his living quarters, the castle revolves while they journey down what must be six flights of stairs; accentuated by Brian Hoehne's blood-red lighting, the sequence feels like a true descent into hell.
Yet as scared as I was by the set, I was also routinely scared of the set, as every time it spun, a bit of the show's rhythm died.
This isn't to say that the scene changes weren't handled well; at Friday's opening performance, I didn't notice even one revolve goof. (Every so often there were obvious lighting and sound glitches, but considering the exorbitant number of lighting and sound cues, for the life of me I couldn't tell you exactly when they happened. I registered them and they were promptly forgotten.) There are simply too many scene changes. I'm guessing that each act features, at a bare minimum, two dozen, with some sequences lasting only a handful of seconds; the script feels less like a play than a screenplay. And nearly every time a locale changes, the lights dim and the set begins its efficient, steady, momentum-killing revolve. You probably wouldn't even notice these shifts if the set spun a dozen or so times. But 48?
Lyons also wrote Dracula's adaptation and, in his director's notes, remarks that he "always wanted to write a version that does justice to Bram Stoker's original masterpiece." As I haven't read the book, I assume that Lyons accomplished his mission, because for the life of me, I can't imagine what material he cut.
Including intermission and scene changes, the show clocks in at just over three hours, and it's saddled with so much narration and exposition that the on-stage action only accounts for about two-thirds of the story; the rest is delivered through monologues and dialogues featuring nearly every member of the cast. (This rotating-narration convention was used, quite effectively, in Timber Lake's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 2005, but here, it just feels like Lyons is trying to keep his actors occupied.)
Lyons varies the presentation by sometimes having the characters - particularly Mina (the ever-focused, ever-divine Cassandra Marie Nuss) and Lucy (a saucy Jenny Guse) - deliver backstory to each other, but that actually makes us more aware of the time spent telling rather than showing. (The production occasionally resembles a Transylvanian Love Letters.)
The writer/director's faithfulness to Stoker leads to other bumpy patches. (And excesses: With no offense meant to Ross Freier, who plays the role, the character of Quincey could've been excised with no noticeable loss.) The sequences between Dr. Seward (a kindly/sinister Ben Mason) and Renfield (Justin Sample), while beautifully performed, occur so frequently that they begin to seem like mere interruptions, and Lucy fantasizes a hallucinatory dance sequence - accompanied by Richard Rodney Bennett's Murder on the Orient Express theme - so awkward that, for a few minutes, you're not sure where the show went.
Excepting that scene, though - and a finale that suggests the arrival of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Scooby Gang - this Dracula is strong and serious, lovingly costumed by Kaitlyn Kearn, and there definitely isn't an actor here you wish were around less often.
Several, in fact, are superb. The tall, deep-voiced Trump makes for a spectacularly imposing, quietly threatening vampire - and earns a big laugh with the immortal "I don't drink ... wine." - yet the play's standout portrayal is given by Jeremy Day; his understandably anxious Van Helsing is beautifully realized, and the tension of Act II wholly felt in his internally panicked expressions. Dracula's undead concubines are played with hissing malevolence by Sarah Dothage, Samantha Joy Dubina, and Jacqui Pugh - the redhead, blond, and brunette match-up makes them seem like Satanic versions of the Witches of Eastwick - and the character of Renfield is so eccentric and twitchy that he could only (happily) be played by Justin Sample; the hard-working actor is both legitimately and likably bughouse.
Performers this inventive would probably make even lesser material play, yet no individual scenes here are less than impressive (even Lucy's nutty fantasy is well-executed, at least), and some are downright extraordinary. Lyons' staging of a bumpy carriage ride and the Jonathan/Mina wedding - with the count and Lucy, upstage, engaged in a horrific kiss - are fantastic, but he's particularly inspired during Dracula's freak-outs: the vampire Lucy arising from her crypt, her nightmarish smile unleashing a steady dribble of blood; the vampire vixens greedily devouring a baby; Renfield's unspeakable atrocity committed against a kitten, a moment only matched in giddy, audience-goosing shock value by his hungry insanity as he contemplates eating a tarantula. A live tarantula. With such remarkable moments amidst such a lengthy, uneven production, Timber Lake's Dracula winds up much like the title character himself: oftentimes creepy, occasionally hypnotic, continually elegant, and, in the end, awfully draining.
For tickets, call (815) 244-2035.