Look out, 'Dracula' is in your neck of the woods [Review]

"Dracula" seems right at home among the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute high above Ellicott City. Thanks to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's outdoor staging, the vampire has taken up residence at this wooded site. It makes for the perfect Halloween date.

Based on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, this theatrical adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston has been scaring audiences since it made its debut on Broadway in 1927. Although it lacks the literary beauty and psychological nuance of the source novel, the play version goes straight for the jugular in terms of what happens when Dracula moves from Transylvania to England.

Indeed, "Dracula" is such a familiar story that you might find yourself becoming a bit impatient with English characters who haven't quite figured out what bite marks on the neck signify. When a character asks "What is a vampire?," you may be tempted to raise your hand with the correct answer.

The story is so well known that there is a ritualistic quality to following this moveable production through various rooms of the Patapsco Female Institute-turned-haunted house.

You know that Dracula will go for Lucy Seward's beautiful, young neck. You know that Lucy's father, Dr. Seward; the doctor's Dutch friend, Professor Van Helsing; and Lucy's boyfriend, Jonathan Harker, will devise a plan to put a stake through Dracula. And you know that a truly mad patient in Dr. Seward's sanitarium, Renfield, will indulge in his unsanitary habit of eating flies and spiders.

It's campy fun to watch this vintage horror tale played out yet again, but it's also at least mildly scary to have the black-caped Dracula emerge from some manufactured fog and then brush right by you as he silently enters Lucy's bedroom and heads her way.

Seeing "Dracula" at such close quarters and after dark really makes a difference in the atmospherically effective production directed by Scott Alan Small. The building's dimly lit rooms have been sparsely furnished with Victorian-era tables and chairs, as if these domestic spaces were endangered outposts of civilization. Numerous doorways and windows make it difficult to keep Dracula out.

The nocturnal world outside the sanitarium is filled with Renfield's shrieks and the recorded sound of dogs howling. Let's just hope the Ellicott City neighbors don't call the cops.

Any such police report would note that the principal suspect, Dracula, has pale skin, dark hair, a black cape, gracefully cultivated manners, and an accent so thick that only Bela Lugosi could match it.

This production's Dracula, Michael P. Sullivan, makes the most of Dracula's seductive behavior. He'd be a matinee idol if he could stand a little daylight. The only thing Sullivan's performance lacks is that he isn't menacing enough. Yes, he needs a little more bite.

Blythe Coons is ever-lovely and increasingly hysterical as Lucy; Matthew Sparacino deftly conveys Jonathan's earnest devotion to Lucy; Frank Mancino is suitably gruff as Dr. Seward; Scott Graham confidently embodies Van Helsing's know-it-all personality; Matthew Ancarrow is like a limber athlete as the roving and raving Renfield; and Robby Rose and Laura Rocklyn play servants who must be wondering if there aren't safer minimum-wage jobs elsewhere.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "Dracula" runs through Oct. 31 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m.; Halloween week performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 29- 31, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29- $38; $20 student tickets are available on Thursday and Sunday only; all tickets are $38 for performances on Oct. 29, 30 and 31. Call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

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