Ambitious 'Dracula' lacks bite ; Review: Familiar vampire story is all flash, no fangs; Theater


As I overheard someone in the audience say, "Dracula" "has been done to death." John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane's adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire tale is probably best known as the 1931 Bela Lugosi movie. It re-surfaced four decades later in a sexy stage version starring Frank Langella. And the play has been a Halloween perennial at little theaters.

So here it is, ensconced at the Spotlighters for the month of October. As directed by Melainie Eifert and Ron Gregory, with a set designed by Mitchell A. Nathan, the production turns the entire tiny theater into a kind of Halloween funhouse.

The walls, ceiling, pillars -- just about everything but the theater seats -- have been painted black and liberally decorated with white painted spider webs. There are also a couple of small special effects, nothing overwhelming, but in such a modest venue, they're a nice touch.

The thrills and chills pretty much end there, however. The cast, headed by cape-wielding Gregory in the title role, performs adequately, although as Dr. Van Helsing, the Dutch specialist brought in to treat anemic Lucy Seward (Melissa Meyd), Bob Bardoff speaks with a sometimes unintelligible accent that sounds more eastern European than Dutch.

"Dracula" -- and this script in particular -- is so familiar that for a production to distinguish itself, it has to introduce some new interpretation. In this case, the focus is on style, and while some of that style is impressive, in other respects it comes across as merely arty.

For example, the production begins with a wordless tableau in which Lucy takes center stage and is surrounded, one by one, by the other cast members, each wearing a mask. A similarly masked Dracula then rises from his coffin, removes the other actors' masks, stacks them up and places them over Lucy's face. Presumably, this is intended to suggest that Dracula has turned the multitudes into his minions and that Lucy will be his most important conquest. Though not a bad conceit, it's somewhat extraneous and cumbersomely staged.

But while the intention behind the opening scene might have merit, the same cannot be said for the see-through bodice of the red dress Meyd's Lucy wears when she tries to seduce her fiance, Jonathan Harker (David Parker). Not only should the change in Lucy's formerly demure nature be apparent in her acting, but "Dracula" is a show that should be suitable for children, especially at this time of year, and a flash of nudity is liable to make parents understandably wary.

Lucy's red dress, however, is the only serious misstep in a production that deserves credit for ambition -- even if it doesn't always send chills up your spine.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 31. Tickets are $10. Call 410-752-1225.

Free play reading

Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., will hold a free reading of Moises Kaufman's off-Broadway hit play, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," at 7: 30 p.m. tonight in the upstairs Head Theater. Directed by Tim Vasen, the cast will feature some of the actors in the theater's current production of "An Ideal Husband," as well as local actors. For information, call 410-332-0033.

Mehta leads Beckett group

Xerxes Mehta, professor of theater at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and artistic director of the Maryland Stage Company, is the newest president of the international Samuel Beckett Society.

An organization of writers, scholars and theater artists dedicated to maintaining Beckett's legacy, the society meets annually and publishes a biannual newsletter, The Beckett Circle.

"I'm thrilled," Mehta said of his election. "I had no expectation of it and frankly was astonished by it. It is a great honor to be asked to play even a small part in advancing the legacy of an artist of such humanity, originality and power."

In addition, he said, "I think one establishes one's credentials in the Beckett world either through books and articles or through productions and performances, and I think the fact that the Maryland Stage Company's 1996 production at the Samuel Beckett International Festival in Strasbourg, France, was received as warmly as it was, certainly, I would guess, had something to do with this."

Mehta is currently on the steering committee of the society's forthcoming symposium, titled "Beckett in Berlin 2000," for which he was, as he puts it, the "originating muse." The impetus for the symposium was his feeling that "the year 2000 might be a good to time to celebrate a playwright whom I and many others consider the greatest of this century, and that Berlin, the city that embraced Beckett so warmly and where he did so much important work, might be a good place for that celebration." The weeklong event will begin Sept. 20, 2000, and will include a Maryland Stage Company performance of three short Beckett plays -- "Play," "That Time" and "Ohio Impromptu."

Songwriter takes stage

"And there you are, oh, man, I can't believe this," the fawning character of Buddy says to the protagonist, a former star on the gospel circuit, in Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's musical "The Last Session." On Oct. 9 at AXIS Theatre, Buddy's words took on extra meaning when songwriter Schalchlin flew in from the West Coast and stepped into the largely autobiographical lead role in a benefit performance for the theater.

A tall, affable man with a commanding singing voice, Schalchlin appeared on stage with Brochu, his partner and the show's librettist, who took the role of the recording engineer in this small-scale musical set in a recording studio.

Although the diary entry on Schalchlin's Web site (www.bonus explains how ill the HIV-positive songwriter felt that day -- which began with a one-man show to benefit Youth Guardian Services -- there was no indication of weakness in his singing or acting. The theatergoers, who included fans from as far away as California, gave the moving performance a well-deserved standing ovation. In his diary, Schalchlin, who had attended the show the night before his appearance, praised AXIS' "very talented cast" and singled out lead actor Steve Antonsen as "really great."

Back home in North Hollywood, Brochu said last week that he is working on another play, also based on Schalchlin's struggles with AIDS, called "The Lazarus Agreement." "The Last Season" ended its run at AXIS yesterday.

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