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THEATER : Humor With Bite : Dancing Dog Theatre hopes to keep audiences off balance with its productions of 'Dracula' and 'Frankenstein.'

October 30, 1992|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

Terence Marinan is trying to undermine what author David J. Schow has said about vampire fiction, and by extension, the whole realm of horror: "As a genre, it is by and large ultraconservative, moribund . . . derivative, totally safe, and utterly dull, dull, dull."

And yet, listening to Marinan, artistic director of Dancing Dog Theatre Company, there seems to be a way to treat the Dracula myth and Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein" seriously and vitally. That's the trick, and possibly the treat, of Dancing Dog's Halloween-season repertory staging of both tales at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.

"There's a macabre humor in both," Marinan said, sipping coffee in a dark booth at a Sherman Oaks restaurant. "But the goal is to keep the audience off balance between tragedy and humor. 'Dracula' lends itself especially well to this up-and-down dynamic. But the real challenge is that everyone knows everything about vampires today, so you have to rise to a level of believability above the audience's sophistication."

It's a personal challenge, since Marinan, 42, is not only directing a new "Dracula" stage version but playing the count. He also wrote the script with company members Jerry Winsett (who plays Renfield in "Dracula") and Brian Van Dusen (the doctor in "Frankenstein").

"I'm not used to working with the undead," he says, but neither is Dancing Dog used to doing rep or non-classical work. The group's choice of plays over its five-year existence--Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "Twelfth Night," Edmund Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac," Moliere's "Tartuffe," Jean Cocteau's "The Infernal Machine," and last year, Chekhov's "Wild Honey"--has been guided, Marinan said, "by a call. If theater doesn't amaze you, it's not worth doing."

But when Marinan wanted to do two plays in repertory, said "Frankenstein" director Tom Busk, 43, "there was a lot of resistance. Nobody wanted a repeat of last year, when we had two nights to set up 'Wild Honey' at a park in West Hollywood. But two shows at once? We had a lot of doubts, but our fears have evaporated. Things have gone very smoothly."

The seemingly impossible plan uncannily fits with the Dancing Dog moniker, which Marinan credits to Oscar Wilde: "It's said that he attended a party, where some guests had brought their dancing dogs along to perform for the group. Wilde was asked what he thought of the act, and he said, 'It's not that they do it well. It's that they do it at all.' "

Until five weeks ago, though, there was a real question whether "Dracula" would indeed be done at all. The company, believing it had secured the rights to the version by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (the 1978 Broadway hit with Frank Langella), rented the Whitefire and cast for that script.

Suddenly, those rights were claimed by producer Robert Young for a touring production, and the Dancing Dogs had to move fast to come up with a suitable alternate version.

"There was none," said Marinan, who sat down with Winsett and Van Dusen and wrote a new play in "four days and nights" in late September. They based the script on Bram Stoker's novel, veering from the other eight stage versions.

Director Busk had no such horror stories for "Frankenstein," since playwright Tim Kelly had given his blessing to do his stage version.

"Of course, we had to make sure that it worked physically in tandem with 'Dracula,' " Busk said. That was the task of designer Robert W. Zentis, who had to fashion a set that could be changed over in less than an hour on the Halloween night double bill.

Where and When

What: "Dracula" and "Frankenstein."

Location: Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

When: Halloween night double bill of "Frankenstein" at 8 p.m. and "Dracula" at midnight. "Frankenstein" runs Friday, Nov. 7, 8, 12, 13, 21, 22, 26 and 27. "Dracula" runs Thursday, and Nov. 6, 14, 15, 19, 20, 28 and 29.

Price: $13 ($10 for those in costume on Halloween).

Call: (213) 739-3910.

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