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Chilling where it counts

The Theatricum's 'Dracula' is eerie and lively. Ellen Geer's over-faithful adaptation is a tad long, however.

July 31, 2007|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

Nature cooperated with art on the opening night of "Dracula," a new adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic by Ellen Geer, which premiered under a near-full moon at the Theatricum Botanicum while strange animal cries echoed through the Topanga hills and bats swooped over the stage as if on cue.

Those familiar with the classic film starring Bela Lugosi, which was itself largely based on a 1920s stage play by John Balderston and Hamilton Deane, may be startled by the differences in Geer's version, a faithful rendering of Stoker's 1897 novel, almost beat by beat. Geer, who also directs, maintains the epistolary tone of Stoker's tale by assigning the bulk of the narration to two readers (Mark Lewis and Melora Marshall), who sit sedately before miked music stands as they recite from scripts.

If that sounds a bit static, it's not. Appropriately enough, Geer goes for the jugular in this extravagant staging, a striking, aerobic, often bizarre mélange that delivers genuine chills while scaling Carpathian heights of camp.

However, there's only a one-letter difference between "lavish" and "slavish." Geer's outpouring is more a recapitulation than an adaptation. Rather than dramatically synthesizing Stoker's desultory yarn, Geer adheres to her source material with an acolyte's zeal. The overlong result may score as a literary curiosity, but the horror sags under the weight of sheer conscientiousness.

Marshall McDaniel's original music, performed live by McDaniel on cello and Kristine Ganibe on piano, functions much like a silent movie score, greatly contributing to the atmosphere of dread, as do choral segments tunefully rendered by a capable ensemble. But when, at fortunately infrequent intervals, the main characters burst into solos and duets, the effect palls.

In a role so closely associated with Lugosi, Chad Jason Scheppner's Count Dracula transcends caricature. Terrifyingly agile, Scheppner climbs down rooftops, leaps into trees and dashes through the audience, cape flying, on his sanguinary rounds. His is -- dare we say it? -- a full-blooded portrayal that is the beating heart of the show.

Abetted by choreographer Lexi Pearl, Geer marshals her huge cast into frequently stunning tableaux, nicely set off by Michael Mahlum's shadowy lighting. The cast includes Alan Blumenfeld, who makes for an atypically bombastic Van Helsing; Christina Howard, whose doomed Lucy creepily transforms from artless coquette to ravenous revenant; and Jim LeFave, who gives the ranting Renfield a touching nobility. Willow Geer's Mina is effectively saintly, Aaron Hendry's Jonathan Harker is appropriately stalwart and Mike Peebler's Dr. Seward is satisfyingly cerebral.

All these players, and their intrepid fellow performers, commit fully to this sprawling, lush enterprise, which delivers plenty of entertainment value despite its flaws. But beware the glinting moon of the Topanga night. And bring garlic.



Where: Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Ends: Sept. 29

Price: $20 and $25

Contact: (310) 455-3723 or

Running time: 3 hours

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