Where are we? Who is this? Who's the guy with the fake beard? What's he talking about?
If these and other irksome questions have roared like semis and parked in your mind, you must've been in the audience at Steven Dietz' Dracula, onstage at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Dependent entirely on what he calls "the theatre's intrinsic reliance on the imagination of its audience," Dietz adapts Bram Stoker's classic novel (1897) to suit infuriating theatrical whims far scarier than anything Stoker could've come up with on his own. Director Nathan Halvorson courteously obliges, fulfilling these lofty artistic aims and at times surpassing them, when Dietz seems to have forgotten them.
But let the man — a Denver native! — speak for himself. In the program note from 1995, Dietz lays out objectives for Dracula that would terrify any selection committee deserving of the name.
• "Like the greatest of playwrights," Dietz maintains, Stoker "understands that the mind is constantly in search of order." Be assured, Dietz is quite literal about this one, and knows just what to do about it. The searching never ends in Dracula.
• "We cannot help but make stories out of whatever [seemingly] random information is being presented to us." Strike Two. The "seemingly random" must at some point crystallize into a coherent representation of cause and effect. Dietz and Halvorson never really accomplish this storytelling necessity; in fact, they do everything they can to avoid it.
• "A transcontinental jigsaw puzzle. A myriad of disturbing clues. ... the impossibility of anyone assembling the totality of the facts, the cumulative force of the information." Dietz catches and confines Dracula in his own web of false intentions, depriving Stoker's Count and his victims of any psychological truth. Stoker must be given the benefit of the doubt on those matters, and many others.
But it's the maladroit flashbacks, the uncertainty of locations, and Dracula's corporeal or ethereal presence that confound and keep things out of our grasp. Set in Transylvania and London in 1893, the production does little to distinguish between the castle that Dracula (Matt Radcliffe) keeps in the Carpathians and the bedchamber belonging to Lucy (Katie Consamus) in the English countryside. A London asylum, though, is rendered nicely with a revolving cage to help Seward (Jason Lythgoe) contain the ghoulish Renfield (Michael Lee), the play's certifiable madman and oracle of Dracula's proximity.
When in doubt, shout, seems to be Halvorson's answer to Dietz's shortcomings, and Dracula pierces the ear constantly with annoying shrieks and howls. This supposedly makes up for the cautious and minimized effects with blood (excepting Renfield), but rather than scare us, they remind us that we're supposed to be scared. The goosebump factor in this Dracula is decidedly low. Also, all effects relating to sex are staged so suspiciously, even prudishly, so as not to offend, that they end up not doing anything else, either.
In spite of all this, the Dracula cast performs as a fine-tuned, polished ensemble, the best seen in recent memory. When Van Helsing (Logan Ernstthal) unites them, hand-on-crucifix, to put this Dracula guy away once and for all, they shine. Consamus and Christian O'Shaughnessy (as Harker) play their infection from Transylvanian fever with boldness, and Ernstthal fields the surrounding hysteria like the seasoned pro that he is.
Lee is spectacular as the deranged Renfield, even when you haven't the faintest idea what he's shouting about. In the title role, Radcliffe does what he's given to do as well as anyone imaginable, and Lythgoe and Jessica Weaver (as Mina) are, as usual, excellent.
Colorado Springs has some very fine actors in residence. So forget about the blood and bats and stakes to the heart, and watch the fireworks.