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THEATER REVIEW : 'Dracula' Loses Its Bite : Drama, farce do battle in a play that opens with wit, and drags in stolid a second act.

October 28, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times. and

STUDIO CITY — From all advance reports, the version of "Dracula" being presented in the inaugural production of the Ventura Court Theatre Alliance was supposed to be for yucks. Forget those boring explanations of vampirism and Vlad history of the Bram Stoker variety. We're off to Camp Dracula.

Actually, we get halfway there, then turn back. In George Luce's and George Maguire's play, there's a little bit of the nonsense of "Love at First Bite," a touch of Mel Brooks-style buffoonery, a sprinkling of British farce--and a whole bunch of Stoker's old plot from the novel (the English sequence). This "Dracula" is more or less a comedy in the first and last acts. The problem is the act in the middle, with a stolid, literal, exposition-heavy tone that throws the evening out of whack.

It also doesn't help that the physical comedy in Act I is hardly pulled off with the ease of some of the modest special effects--and the suave ease of Vaughn Armstrong as an interestingly older, seasoned vampire. Ironically, Armstrong is so into the role that it may have cost him some objectivity as director. A pair of eyes once-removed would have told him that this show needs some housekeeping.

The Luce-Maguire version starts charmingly, with the nutty insect-chomping Renfield (Tony Simotes) introducing us to Dr. Seward's abode--next door to the count. Simotes and Joy Ellison's stout Elizabeth carry most of the comic load.

But with gags that long overstay their welcome and some dull characterizations, the only real magnetism comes from Armstrong seducing the impassioned Deborah Greene as his victim, Wilhelmina.

Two kinds of struggles are going on here: the intended one between the man-animal and the virginal beauty, and the unintended one between drama and farce. As dull, driven Van Helsing explains to one and all how to outsmart the count, the show winds down into just another creaky vampire tale. And though Nick Drobnis' nifty pyrotechnics and some ensemble goofiness enliven the climax, a cheap canvas backdrop of castle wall brings a community theater feeling to the stage at just the wrong time.

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, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Nov. 6.

Price: $12 to $16.

Call: (818) 763-3856.

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