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THEATER REVIEW 'DRACULA' : Bat With a Bite : Special-effects wizardry brings to life a classic story of evil.

August 22, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Boy, this one comes at you like a bat out of hell. It's a roller coaster creep show replete with special effects wizardry--the kind that PCPA Theaterfest is uniquely equipped to provide with its seasoned, well-staffed technical team.

The company makes the most of those resources in "Dracula" by providing an abundance of atmospheric touches, including fog banks, candles that light themselves, howling wolves, cobweb-encrusted ruins, and the sinister count's transformation into his winged alter ego, soaring off the stage and over the audience to close the first act. Add the setting--the outdoor Solvang Festival Theatre with its castle battlement decor--and you've got quite a spectacle.

Amid all the ambience, it's a challenge to keep the audience's attention on the performers. Mark Ciglar's rendition of the count evokes a suitably evil force to be reckoned with, imperious and nourished with cunning refined over centuries.

Closer to the trendy portrayal of Dracula as mean, sharp and sexy (rather than the classic zombie with an accent), his tone of genuine annoyance at the impudent mortals who oppose him is quite delightful. On the other hand, Ciglar finds little to make this heavily overpopulated role uniquely his own.

His nemesis, Prof. Van Helsing, is nicely detailed by Michael Tremblay, who manages with understated dignity to convince the other characters of the supernatural cause of their troubles.

Assisting the professor in his stakeout are Tim Fullerton as the somewhat stiff romantic lead and Jeff Mills as Dracula's next-door neighbor, the head of a lunatic asylum. Amy Prosser is an early victim, and Tina P. Stafford proves a surprisingly plucky heroine for the Victorian mind-set (some of the male characters' sexist remarks drew more hisses than the vampire's evil deeds).

But the play's riveting performance comes from Michael Heelan as Renfield, the asylum inmate with the unconventional nutritional theory that he can absorb lives through a kind of pyramid diet plan--feeding flies to spiders, spiders to rats, rats to a cat, and then--well, you get the picture.

Instead of showing Renfield as a foaming lunatic, Heelan impresses most with his penetrating insight into the play's events and his absolute reasonableness. Sure he's crazy, but in a context where the sane characters are all chasing after vampires, the clinical distinction gets a little blurred.

The efforts of the technical crew deserve equal billing with the performers on this one. They are guided by Jack Shouse (scenic design), Michael A. Peterson (lighting), Gabriel Espinoza (costumes) and Carolyn Shouse (choreography).

Director Roger DeLaurier shows a keen sense of atmosphere and embellishes the production with a quartet of vampires, unseen by the protagonists, who hiss and flit through the scenes in a kind of superimposed surreality (a signature PCPA staging technique revived from the days of Jack Fletcher that proves quite effective here).

But while DeLaurier's direction hints at some of the subterranean sources of the Dracula story's continuing fascination--the eroticism of evil and the archetypal religious conflict--he never really explores them. The production contents itself with evoking in painstaking detail playwright Richard Sharp's extremely literal stage version of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel.

There are problems with that choice. Stoker's novel has always proved a monster for dramatic adaptations. Its clever use of epistolary format--telling the story from the letters, diaries and recollections of the principal characters--is resistant to establishing a single point of view. Would-be adapters frequently find themselves impaled on the story's inherently static quality. Out of hundreds of attempts on stage and screen, the only completely successful literal adaptation was the three-hour BBC production that starred Louis Jourdan.

Bringing Stoker's sprawling, episodic plot to the stage of necessity involves modification, and here in Sharp's version we find characters, events and even locales telescoped to a producible scale. If the goal of being literal is already compromised, trying to salvage the story's skeleton seems like misdirected energy, especially when so many intriguing tangents suggest themselves.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Dracula" will be performed in repertory at the Solvang Festival Theatre on Sept. 1, 7, 13, 19 and 22. Performances at 8:30 p.m. are $17 and $15 Fridays and Saturdays, $16 and $13 Sundays through Thursdays. Call (800) 221-9469 for reservations or further information.

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