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THEATER : Fang in Cheek : 'Dracula' holds the blood, pours on the laughs. Lead actor says the vampire is older, wiser and has a better sense of humor.

October 14, 1994|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

STUDIO CITY — Grab your garlic and cover up your neck: The world's most popular vampire is on the loose again, as "Dracula, A Tale of the Nosferatu" opens tonight at the Ventura Court Theatre.

Written by George Luce and George McGuire, the seven-character show is billed as a "fang-in-cheek" retelling of the Bram Stoker legend. "There are no buckets of blood," assures co-producer Chris Edsey. "It's campy but thrilling, a real family show--although it's not recommended for children under 7."

The show marks the first in-house production of the Ventura Court Theatre Alliance, a collaboration of two married couples--Edsey and Vaughn Armstrong (who's playing Dracula), and Shannon Monahan and Frank Ashmore (Dracula's nemesis, Van Helsing)--who took over the newly renovated 50-seat space in April and have since hosted a handful of rental shows, including "Hurlyburly" and "The Wives." Armstrong and Edsey discovered this version of the Dracula story in 1981, when they co-starred in a staging for friend and co-writer Luce at his Barn Dinner Theatre in Albuquerque, N.M.

"I'm now too old for Mina," the vampire's love interest, Edsey says with a wry laugh, "but he can still play Dracula."

"It was just so much fun," recalls Armstrong, who revived the role in 1984 at the DeLacey Street Theatre in Pasadena. "There's magic, mystery, pathos, camp--for parents and kids. It's just scary enough, and a lot of laughs." Quoting a description from the play, he refers to his Dracula as "a magnificent evil beast" who's evolved over the years. "He's bitten a few more necks, tasted a few more blood types; his preferences are more well-defined," says the actor. "And he has a better sense of humor."

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Armstrong obviously holds a soft spot for this notorious character.

"I love vampire features--I grew up with them," explains the actor, who has previously essayed Dracula five times in three different versions. "He's someone who falls in love with every crystal beauty he sees, and for that moment, he's completely enamored. He's been around for 400 years, sought the perfect love--and each one is , until he sucks them dry and has no further use for them.

"He's as much animal as human, a snake seeking his prey. It's not his fault; it's part of his being. He's as intelligent as he is evil, a victim of circumstance--and yet he loves it." Born in Sonora, Calif., Armstrong grew up in Redlands, and got into acting as a teen-ager. "I was a little rowdy," he allows, "so my mother offered me $10 to get into a school play." He quickly discovered the ratio of girl-to-boy thespians was way in his favor. "It was like, 'Money and women--yeah, this is the place for me.' And I got a lot of positive response. I had a drama teacher who taught me responsibility, the joy of being involved." After high school, he was drafted into the Army infantry and shipped off to Vietnam.

"I didn't want to shoot people," Armstrong says, "so I built a theater in Cam Rahn Bay." Later, he was transferred to an Army base in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was in charge of the Fort Carson Little Theatre--and performed his first "Dracula."

Moving to Kansas, he met Edsey in 1974--"We had a great romance in every cornfield," he says--and together they relocated to Los Angeles. Married 17 years, they have two sons, 8 and 10.

Although he's worked regularly in TV and film, Armstrong is proudest of two local stage outings, Bill Cain's "Stand-Up Tragedy" (Taper, Too and Mark Taper Forum, 1989) and the group-created Vietnam drama, "Tracers" (Coronet, 1985)--whose stage version he filmed last month. "When you do a lot of television, a lot of commercial things, you usually don't get to say anything important," the actor says. "Of the hundreds of plays I've done, they are the only ones of real social relevance."

Armstrong pauses. "Let's be clear," he says cheerily. " 'Dracula' is not that. 'Dracula' is just fun."

Where and When

What: "Dracula, A Tale of the Nosferatu."

Location: Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with a special matinee performance Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. Closes Nov. 6.

Price: $15 general admission; $12 seniors and children 16 and younger.

Call: (818) 763-3856.

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