I write a lot about nostalgia and memory, both in my writing for this publication and in my own work as a playwright. I was excited to write about Classic Stage Company’s repertory productions of Dracula and Frankenstein, and looked forward to reflecting on what I remembered and what I thought I remembered from my childhood about these two horror classics. Also, I was ready to have the bejeezus scared out of me. I love horror theater.
Unfortunately, I was unable to focus on either fear or sentimentality because I spent two evenings last week pretty baffled, both at the individual productions and at the conversation the two pieces were failing to have with one another.
I so wanted to like Kate Hamill’s feminist revenge adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But because I went in mentally prepared for what I remembered as a gory story of murder and missing aristocrats, I was disappointed when it quickly became apparent that Hamill’s approach would depart from trying to tell a scary story in favor of something more playful. The script abandons any dread, pervasive in the novel (and its more successful film adaptations), and becomes a goofy adventure story. Even as that, it struggles.
Housewife Mina (Kelley Curran giving a lovely performance) and Van Helsing (Jessica Frances Duke, fucking serving a fantastic tough take-no-nonsense performance) work together to fight the male figures in the rest of the play. They deal with Mina’s husband Jonathan’s strange behavior on his return from continental Europe, they teach Doctor Seward (Matthew Saldivar–according to the script he’s supposed to mean well but mostly comes across like a wholly misogynist dick) that women are more than their roles as housewives, and they, uh, get that damn vampire (Matthew Amendt, wild-eyed) to stop killing members of their community!
The script is tonally all over the place, and struggles heartily to balance the horror and the comedy. As such, Sarna Lapine’s hectic staging also falters. In a tale so laden with violence, one would expect a lot of bloodshed. Instead, we are given glittery red yarn and an overuse of intense red gels on the lighting units to make it clear that these folks, in their cream and white costumes, are, in fact, bleeding. All of the actors are having a fun time, and as such, so does most of the audience, but I found myself incredibly distracted by the inconsistencies in the script.
Meanwhile, I loved the first half of Tristan Bernays’s two-actor minimalist experiment adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The play skips most of the first half of the novel (Victor’s coming of age). The performance begins with an extended sequence of the Creature’s reanimation by the doctor. We watch him (Stephanie Berry, absolutely incredible) learn to use his limbs, discover food, and ultimately and very quickly learn to speak. This whole opening was beautiful and extremely joyful, and moved me to tears.
But then I realized we were halfway through a play that was, again, supposed to have been a retelling of a horror classic, and I had not once been scared or even lightly uneasy.
The Creature, who just wants to be loved, runs through a series of episodes. He fails to befriend a blind man when the blind man’s children see how ugly he is. He kills the child and fiancée of the doctor who created him. He leads the doctor on a chase to the North Pole where the doctor ultimately perishes. And through it all, there was absolutely no tension.
The play plods along, and in its second half, comes to an unexpected end. Director Timothy Douglas’s staging is mostly slick, but the moments of fight choreography intended to show the Creature’s most brutal acts, came across messy and unpolished.
On the subway home on Saturday night after seeing Frankenstein, I struggled to understand why these two plays were being presented together. Sure, the two original novels have given us horror trope after horror trope that pervades spooky stories being made to this day. But the two plays are so vastly different in tone and style that not even John Doyle’s uninteresting set can unite them in any sort of conversation.
Both plays lean away from true depictions of violence. Any time the bedazzled blood yarn made an appearance in Dracula I said aloud to my date for the evening, “Oh, how fabulous!” And in Frankenstein, the amount of time Bernays took to humanize the creature made the moments of violence feel ultimately unearned and sudden. I was never scared. In fact, I found myself wondering why I was so relaxed.
Neither reinvention opened up this material anew and that was chilling indeed.