Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for us
A CurtainUp DC Review
Landless Theatre's Vlad Dracula and Synetic Theater's Dracula
by Rich See
Washington area audiences have a double plate of the undead to prep us for the Halloween season. Both Landless Theatre and Synetic Theater have sunk their teeth into new adaptations of Bram Stoker's Gothic horror classic Dracula. While some aspects of each production are very similar, the two companies have chosen very different approaches to find the soul of the Count.
Landless, the often irreverent and campy hijinks company who last brought us Gilligan's Island has developed an original rock musical of the famous vampire. Vlad Dracula is a performance that remains fairly faithful to the legend of the Transylvanian nobleman while it incorporates songs about lost love and sucking the blood out of new love. To give the story an interesting twist, Andrew Lloyd Baughman, Landless' Artistic Director and author of the musical's book, has developed a story where upon Mina Harker is the reincarnated spirit of Count Vlad Tepes' (Vlad the Impaler's) long dead wife, Mihnea cel Rau. Disturbed by his excesses of violence and impaling his victims, she flings herself out of a window instead of joining him in his depravity. (In reality, she flung herself out of a window when the castle was being attacked by the Turkish army.) Despairing of his lost love, Vlad Tepes then makes a pact with the devil that he will be reunited with his dead wife's spirit. And so, 400 years later, she is reborn and Vlad awakens to win her back. And thus the story begins with Jonathan Harker's arrival in Transylvania to sell the Count some London real estate as Dracula prepares to reunite with his lost love.
Meanwhile, Synetic has taken a brooding and graphic direction with the vampire myth incorporating demonic possession and revenge into the story. In this version, Vlad III Dracula is an unrivaled warrior who, when he becomes fascinated by the blood of his victims, is inhabited by a satanic force which uses him as a bodily host to carry out its evil plans. True to Synetic form the story is told in dance, mime and words as Dracula falls in love with Lucy Westenra and only pursues Mina Harker out of revenge towards Dr. Van Helsing who thwarts the Count's plans of having the undead Lucy by his side.
Interestingly, seeing completely different approaches that utilize some similar treatments makes one want to read the actual novel. If only television had this effect on people! Each production maintains Stoker's epistolary style. Landless moves the timeline into the present day, while maintaining Stoker's late 19th century tone. Synetic keeps the time period in the 1890's and highlights the fantastical elements of the story.
Synetic's larger budget and performance space allows it to have a more free flowing telling of the folk tale. Paata Tsikurishvili's Count Dracula is almost spider-like as he seemingly floats across the stage in an almost stooped position. His is a melding of Stoker's Dracula and F.W. Murnau and Henrik Galeen's Nosferatu as he gives an air of trying to keep his inherent chaotic energy contained so that he doesn't foil his own master plan. There is a nervousness about him at the same time as a strength and confidence.
Meanwhile Landless' Andrew Lloyd Baughman offers us a chameleon-like Dracula who seemingly appears out of the walls and who soaks in his own supreme confidence and mastery over mortal men. His presence in the story is almost secondary to the aura of the character. Emotionality is for the most part subdued as the count puts his mechanizations into effect. Interestingly, both companies utilize Neru style jackets for the costume: Synetic incorporates a cape, while Landless chooses a lighter grey color tone.
Design wise, Landless' performance in Bethesda's tiny Writer's Center is minimalist and opens with a multimedia presentation of Draculas from throughout history via images of stamps, movies, plays. etc. With the performance space enshrouded in black drapes, the three-member band provides the backdrop as songstress Karen Paone fills us in on the story line. The always present coffin serves as bed and tomb, the cast sit on the floor as they speak their journal thoughts into cell phones or type emails on laptops.
Landless' costumes are a melding of average everyday wear and modern day Goth. It's Mina Harker (Tara Garwood) is a librarianish, subdued good girl; while it's Lucy (Heather Scheeler) -- clad in lingerie the entire performance -- acts and looks like she is ready for her "Girls Gone Wild" debut. This attention to Lucy actually highlights the one story line flaw, which is: If Dracula is seeking Mina Harker, why does he first go after Lucy Westenra?
Landless breaks gender and sexual orientation barriers by having a male play one of Dracula's brides which lends a nice subtext to the story. Unfortunately, the Writer's Center's bad acoustics are harsh on this highly entertaining rock musical and Amanda Williams' sound design perhaps should have taken into consideration this aspect of the venue. Within the score, several songs are stand outs. These include: "Haunting Memories," "Smell That Blood," "Dear Mina," and "Ballad of the Heart Broken Cowboy."
On the Virginia side, Synetic's costumes are period specific and elaborate in design. Its vampiress trio is dressed in look-like red gowns with elegant long black gloves -- complete with silver talons. Mina Harker is schoolteacher-like in her black, high-necked ensemble, hair pulled back; while Lucy Westenra's always present white ensemble, symbolizes her sacrificial role within the story. On the lesser flip side, Synetic's costumers provide us a devil in a red velvet leotard and black cape that looks uncomfortably like a comic book hero. Kind of like DC Comics' Plastic Man gone bad. The wide black belt that Dan Istrate wears is what moves the costume into caricature-ville, which is unfortunate since it takes away from the horror aspect of his demon's presence. A minor complaint, but that one incongruous aspect mentally pulls you out of the performance momentarily, which is a real shame.
Similarly to Landless, Synetic encircles the stage in black curtains which create an almost spaceless effect. The character's journal thoughts are broadcast as the story plays out in front of our eyes. Irina Tsikurishvili's choreography is once again spellbinding and the symbolic dance and mime become quickly understandable as the story flows forth -- like the blood of the victims of the vampire. The use of red velvet webbing ensnaring the captive souls, the creatively constructed impaling sequences lead up to moments when the company takes your breathe away with its devilishly clever use of fabric effects.
Within the cast, Landless has chosen an almost TV-like hero in a youngish Van Helsing played by Josh Speerstra. Its Jonathan Harker (Tom Slot) is a casually dressed everyman, who fits the librarian-like Mina. August Shaner's cowboy Quincey Morris is a dashing good 'ole boy, while Matthew Baughman's Arthur Holmwood seems overwhelmed by the situation developing around him. (An effect Synetic has also chosen for it's Arthur played by Philip Fletcher.)
Synetic has chosen a dashing Jonathan Harker in the form of company member Greg Marzullo, which makes perfect sense as a romantic opposite for since it's meeker Victorian era Mina (portrayed by Anna Lane). Less vampish than Landless' version, Jodi Niehoff, Synetic's Lucy, is simply a more exuberant and worldly young woman than the company's Mina. During the intriguing "Destruction of London" sequence -- as Dracula's brides go on an orgiastic killing spree -- Lucy's running into the Count is almost overlooked amongst all the dead bodies piling up around town.
An intriguing aspect of each production is that the directors, Melissa Cruz (Landless) and Paata Tsikurishvili (Synetic), have chosen similar Renfields. Both Timothy King (Landless' Renfield) and Nicholas Allen (Synetic's) are similar in height, build and delivery of lines. Synetic explains Mr. Allen's presence in the story by having him be Jonathan Harker's predecessor to Transylvania. The company then pulls out the humanity of the inner man by having him momentarily become sane. Landless uses the character to highlight the more disturbed aspects of the play by having Mr. King's Renfield be truly dangerous not just to flies and birds but also the humans who are around him.
Each company incorporates the eroticism of the story into the blood drinking. Synetic does this by having the victims drink the blood of Dracula -- an actual aspect of the vampire myth -- and something which becomes intercourse-like for both Dracula and his victims. Landless incorporates a seduction of the victims and the biting act is the lead in to an orgasmic experience.
All in all, these shows are a bit like a double feature of late night horror. Similar, yet very different -- even down to the endings. While the Count is destroyed, you'll have to find out on your own who conquers evil in each production. And by the time you finish with both, you'll be thinking up some really extravagant Halloween costumes.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.