Onstage: Review: Dracula

Playhouse's season-opening production is more amusing than amazing

Sandy Underwood

Audience familiarity with Count Dracula (Kurt Rhoads) hurts rather than helps.

Do you know the story of Dracula? Well, of course you do. Part of the fun of watching the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's season-opening production is that everyone knows exactly what's about to happen — from start to finish.

That means we're in on the game being played, more so than the oblivious characters we're watching. Even the savvy Professor Van Helsing (John Michalski), who is more insightful than everyone else, has an irritating propensity for leaving the room just when Lucy (Julia Coffey), the Count's prize victim, is at her most vulnerable.

Our familiarity with the classic tale of the vampire from films and storytelling means we're privy to a number of inside jokes. When asked why he came to England, Count Dracula (Kurt Rhoads) explains that Transylvania has "so few people, so little opportunity." As he hits on the last word he raises an eyebrow and casts a sly glance at the audience surrounding the Playhouse's thrust stage in its large Marx Theatre. A wave of giggles washed over the full house on opening night.

Unfortunately, this familiarity also undercuts any real horror during the story of this bloodthirsty count.

The Playhouse has employed some wonderful stage magic to fascinate us — the Count flies and disappears in several ways that make you wonder just how that worked.

But that was part of the problem for me. Watching a show billed as a thriller, I really don't want to be wondering; I want to be sucked into believing that this is really happening, even when part of me knows it's a special effect. I want to be one of the Count's victims.

That simultaneous feeling of horrified attraction and repulsion should make Dracula thrilling, but it's missing in this production. Too often the campy acting and knowing glances remind us that this is just theater.

There are still plenty of scenes that are fun to watch in Dracula. As the fly-eating Renfield, Scott Schafer is full of crazy quirks, making 180-degree turns from madness to crazy insights that are actually saner than any offered by the "normal" characters. Michalski's Van Helsing is a pragmatic scientist (one character describes him as a "Dutch Sherlock Holmes") trying to think his way through a daunting conundrum. And Rhoads is appropriately arch and threatening as Dracula; his silver streaked hair and all-knowing smile make him a charming, chilling presence from his first entrance.

Lesser roles are adequately played. Lucy's fiancé, Jonathan Harker (Jeffrey Withers), is a one-dimensional wimp, and her father Dr. Seward is a clueless pragmatist. The Playhouse was forced to make several last-minute casting changes due to an actor's illness, so two roles were filled on opening night by performers who had little time to prepare. Dr. Seward and the madhouse attendant Butterworth are not complex roles, so Larry Bull (who had been cast and rehearsed as Butterworth) and Playhouse intern Ryan Imhoff held their places, if not a full grip on their lines.

CEA Hall of Fame designer Paul Shortt created a set which provided the requisite gloom, rafters and casement windows (there's a creepy vault for the finale as well), and Kirk Bookman's eerie lighting (Dracula is washed in pale green light) sets all the right moods. Sound designer David B. Smith has also composed some creepy musical scoring to enhance several stories told about Dracula's origin and to build the tension for the vampire's conquest at the end of the first act.

Nevertheless, I was more amused than amazed by this Dracula. I went hoping my blood would run cold, and it was only slightly chilled. Grade: B-

DRACULA, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Oct. 5.

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