Ambience aplenty for Chesapeake production of 'Dracula'

At the start of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula," a London lawyer named Harker visits Transylvania to facilitate a real estate deal for a mysterious count who desires new digs in England.

Not anything freshly built, or even modestly rehabbed, mind you. Something old and crumbling will do fine, along the lines of the count's longtime castle, with its "dark window openings" and "frowning walls" that form "a jagged line against the sky."

Harker has found just the thing, he tells the count, an "ancient structure, built of heavy stones," a property that "has not been repaired for a large number of years" and has many trees that "make it in places gloomy."

Just like the ruins of the 19th-century Patapsco Female Institute perched atop a hill in Ellicott City, where the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is about to open a production of "Dracula."

This "movable outdoor theater" version, which sends actors and audiences roaming through the site, will run through the month of October — finishing, appropriately, on Halloween.

Dracula would sure feel right at home on this spot. At nighttime, the walls really do seem to frown, especially since there is hardly any patch of roof left on top of them. There's only dark sky for a canopy, framed by treetops that seem to loom with gloom over what's left of the edifice.

"People want to come out here and be spooked," said Lesley Malin, managing director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Getting spooked is what the stage version of "Dracula" is all about. Adapted from the Stoker novel by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, the play grabbed Broadway by the throat in 1927 with a little-known Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, in the title role.

The 1931 movie version also featured Lugosi, whose portrayal of the undead, thirsty aristocrat served as the benchmark for generations of future Draculas. One of them, Frank Langella, starred in a popular Broadway revival of the piece in 1977.

In the age of "Twilight" and the like, the play's scenario — a substantially condensed and modified version of Stoker's original — may seem almost quaint, but it still has legs, or teeth. The story centers on a sanitarium run by Dr. Seward, whose daughter Lucy has a strange anemia. Her fiance, Harker, joins Seward and the Dutch specialist Van Helsing in tracking down the cause of that illness.

"We're doing the same version that Langella did," said Scott Alan Small, director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare production, "except that we've set the action in the 1880s. The original play takes place in the 1920s and mentions things like airplanes."

The image of Dracula taking a night flight from his home country to England does rather take the Gothic out of the tale. Reverting back to a late-Victorian milieu, particularly given the look of the Patapsco Female Institute environs, should serve the company well.

Besides, the spot fits the bill when it comes to some other details in the play, such as Dr. Seward's library, shown here in a large, sunken room of the ruins. The stage directions call for walls of stone — check — and a medieval fireplace — check (well, maybe not medieval, but the remnants of what was once a massive fireplace sure are impressive).

Founded in 2002, Chesapeake Shakespeare, which is renovating a downtown Baltimore building that will serve as its primary home and theater in the future, is best known for its summer activity at the Institute. Productions, chiefly of the Shakespeare canon, are given outdoors in a traditional format — fixed stage area, audience seated in front of it.

In 2008, the company introduced an annual autumn show at the ruins with a twist. Instead of staying in one spot, the action moves from spot to spot, up and down stairs, into dark corridors and dimly lit interiors of what remains of the imposing structure.

The first of the "movable outdoor theater" presentations was Shakespeare's ghost-haunted "Macbeth." A more recent ghostly play, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," also got the treatment.

Given the dark, craggy environment, works with lots of violence fit into the ruins, too, as the company discovered with movable versions of "Julius Caesar," "Richard III" and the bloodiest of the Bard's plays, "Titus Andronicus," which had the box office humming last year.

" 'Dracula' is already our fastest-selling show," Malin said. "We have been limiting attendance to 120 each performance, but we're trying to expand to 150."

Patrons are advised to dress warmly, wear appropriate shoes and carry a flashlight, which can come in extra-handy for making the 1/5-mile trek down the road to the parking lot afterward. (Last week, the few street lamps were malfunctioning, making that trek all the more unnervingly dark.)

There are only a few seats for audience members at certain points during a performance. Most people stand on the perimeters of scenes, or on floors above, during this intimate experience.

"You're in biting distance of the audience," said Michael P. Sullivan, who plays Dracula.

The tall, dark-haired actor seems to be a natural for the assignment. Seeing him dart into the dark, with his black cape flying, to get repositioned for the next scene can be spooky in itself.

"I haven't done anything like this before," Sullivan said. "Dracula's creepy, sexy, scary, funny. And all of these things make it a really interesting role to play. Usually, when I'm heading to rehearsal I'm just worried about forgetting my script. Now, when I leave the house, I'm thinking, 'Oh no, I forgot my fangs.' "

In addition to the cape and the fangs — "There are two sets, high-profile and low-profile," Small said — this Dracula has his accustomed coffin for daytime repose. It's a big, heavy coffin, too, placed in what used to be the chapel area of the Institute, where the climactic scene of the play will take place.

"I want to be in the box," Sullivan said. "But I want a bug check each night."

Speaking of bugs, there are plenty on the grounds — all the more fitting for a play that has one character, Dracula's super-weird minion Renfield, who noshes on flies and spiders.

At a rehearsal last week, a large spider had claimed a spot in one of the windowsills where audience members will watch a scene played out below. Another window opening was partially filled with a massive web, complete with patiently waiting arachnid.

And these were just some of nature's contributions to the ambience for "Dracula."

"We have bats here, too," said Dan O'Brien, technical director for the show. "We use fake ones in some scenes, but there could be real ones flying around when we don't want them."

This is not a special effects-filled production — cast and crew members do the wolf calls that signal Dracula's presence — and it's hardly gore-drenched. ("There's much less blood than there was in 'Titus Andronicus,' " O'Brien said.) But it promises a theatrical edge to go with the decidedly theatrical surroundings.

"We've planned some a-ha moments," Small said. "There is great drama in this play, and humor, too. "I've told the cast from the start 'Believe, believe, believe.' "

Sullivan has taken that advice to heart.

"You have to believe what you're saying," the actor said. "It's not Shakespeare. But if you treat it seriously for what it is — 1920s theater — it works. You get the scares, the mystery. It's like watching an old movie."

If you go

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "Dracula" opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs through Oct. 31 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City. Tickets are $20 to $38. Call 410-313-8661 or go to

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