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In the undead zone, evil is hot

February 20, 2009|Philip Brandes; Charlotte Stoudt;

What better way to honor the endless headline revelations about financial industry bloodsuckers than with a revival of "Dracula"?

Bram Stoker's 1897 tale of a parasitic, undead aristocrat draining the life from hapless middle-class victims has undergone countless plot transfusions over the decades. But it was Frank Langella's 1977 Broadway performance that put the final stake in the coffin of Stoker's original concept, re-envisioning the vampire count as a brooding romantic figure -- a whiter shade of Heathcliff, as it were.

Building on this modernist trend, Ken Sawyer's hip, erotically charged staging for NoHo Arts Center spotlights the forbidden -- and reciprocal -- love between Dracula (Robert Arbogast) and the object of his obsession, Lucy (Darcy Jo Martin). Shrewdly employing breakneck, intermission-free pacing and sensational special effects to compensate for the creaky melodrama inherent in its source (the 1927 Hamilton Dean-John L. Balderston adaptation), the production builds palpable sexual tension between predator and prey. Despite affection for her do-gooder boyfriend (J.R. Mangels), Martin's Lucy succumbs to the overriding truth that evil is -- well, kind of hot. A reincarnation theme lifted from the Francis Ford Coppola film version adds a timeless dimension to their smoldering passion.

Though about as welcome to Stoker purists as a wreath of garlic, all this romantic revisionism helps fill out a role all too often defined by a cape and a kitschy Central European accent. Armed with a fashion sense that's quite forward-looking for the play's 1920s setting, Arbogast's shirtless bad-boy count may have traded in the cape for tight leather pants, but the accent is as cheesy as ever.

His stylized inflections meet their match in Joe Hart's thoroughly committed turn as Dracula's Dutch nemesis, the killjoy know-it-all Van Helsing, who leads the search for the vampire's lair through Dracula's multiple McMansions (talk about your subprime mortgage risk). The character of Lucy's guardian parent, the proprietor of an insane asylum, has been skillfully gender-switched for Karesa McElheny, while Alex Robert Holmes brings corporate bailout-quality absurdity to resident loony Renfield's theories of a trickle-down life force.

Desma Murphy's fabric-swathed Goth set and Sawyer's high-amplitude sound design help deliver all the atmosphere and chills you could ask from a "Dracula" production.

-- Philip Brandes

"Dracula," NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 22. $25. (818) 508-7101, Ext. 7. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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Lost Generation days recovered

The Blank Theatre Company's signature charms -- quirky characters, witty sets and the deft use of music -- are on full, if flawed, view in Allan Knee's "The Jazz Age." This soapy but absorbing portrait of the Lost Generation's F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway features a Tin Pan Alley score by a live three-piece band. From their perch on an upstage balcony, the droll Ian Whitcomb and His Bungalow Boys pluck period ditties as the literary trio below loves, publishes and self-destructs.

These overexposed legends can teeter toward parody, and to Knee's credit he manages to pull us into the action. Sometimes the sexiness feels more jejune than seductive, but for the most part you're along for the ride -- basically, the story of Scott's unrequited love for Hemingway (or for the elusive masculinity Fitzgerald felt he lacked).

There are delicious moments -- Scott and Zelda scheming how to live up to their glam public personas, Hemingway teaching Scott the Charleston -- and cast members attack their roles: "Brothers & Sisters" regular Luke Macfarlane mines Scott's brio and vulnerability to winning effect; Jeremy Gabriel serves up Hemingway's laconic machismo with a side of self-deprecation. Heather Prete throws everything she can at Zelda, but the role is the least developed of the three.

Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow" dealt with show people, and their constant theatrics seemed to express both artistic scope and infantile defensiveness. Here the fireworks feel less organic, and talented director Michael Matthews ("Beautiful Thing") can let the emotion clog what is occasionally an unfocused script. Still, lit aficionados will enjoy quibbling over the factual details; drama junkies will relish the soap. Me? I'd go back for the music.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"The Jazz Age," The Blank Theatre Company, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 22. $22-$28. (323) 661-9827. Running time: 2 hours.

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Free-verse history in the courtroom

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