Death of Dracula: New Spin on 1897 Tale Centers on Vampire Hunters
By Lou Fancher for SFWeekly
Anyone who has tried on a pair of pants and thought, "These were made for me," has had a Central Works-like experience.
The world premiere of Dracula Inquest continues the spunky theater company's fine tradition of creating and presenting original, collaborative works.
Written by Gary Graves and directed by Jan Zvaifler, Central Work's co-directors, Dracula Inquest follows the same process the company has used to develop its plays since 1997. After selecting a writer, designer, and actors, a series of workshops develops a script, often drawing story and characters from a literary work but extending them into previously untraveled territory. The result is a "custom" script — in this case, one based on Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula — that is crafted by the artists' collective research, analysis, and imaginations. Central Works' process has resulted in a remarkable number of locally penned plays; with a few exceptions, patrons can expect any work they see to be the product of a Bay Area playwright.
Dracula Inquest has Scotland Yard detective Avery Sly (John Flanagan) inquiring after the disappearance of Count Dracula. Set in 1895, two years after the events in Stoker's classic horror novel, Sly arrives at an insane asylum to interrogate four inmates. All four are characters from Stoker's famous tale and each has reason to wish the blood-thirsty nobleman dead.
Professor Van Helsing (Joe Estlack) has been hunting vampires for decades. Jonathan Harker (Joshua Schell) was once held prisoner in Dracula's castle and has nearly lost his wife, Mina (Megan Trout), who has fallen victim to Dracula. Mina wafts between personalities: a blood-thirsty disciple and a compadre, eager to join her fellow inmates' mercenary mission. Dr. John Seward (Kenny Toll) has joined his professor and mentor, Helsing, to avenge the death of Lucy Westenra, who was Dracula's first victim, Mina's best friend, and Dr. Seward's failed love interest.
A journal, meticulously "typo-written" by Mina, serves as the detective's prompter. Reading passages, he attempts to break the code of secrets and discover which of — and whether or not — the quartet is guilty of murder.
The action consists primarily of recollections, monologues that crumble from rock-solid reticence into dusty confession under Sly's dogged questioning. And the slow coil of Graves' script comes unspooled in an explosive, climactic ending.
The danger of creating an original play with high-caliber actors like these is that their portrayals may outshine the script or the staging. This happens a little, especially in the case of Trout, whose expression flickers from indignation to tender resignation to bloodlust to dismay. Schell is equally mesmerizing as he tells the tale of his captivity in Dracula's castle. Despite the intimate room, where audiences are just an arms-length from the actors, Zvaifler's clever direction keeps the actors' gaze aloft, on the floor, or at each other. The result is effectively chilling, particularly when observed at such close quarters. One only wishes their movements were less static and the beautifully written script had more volleys back and forth to enliven the largely dialogue-driven production.
The 50-seat, high-ceilinged room in the Berkeley City Club is a perfect setting for the drama. Diamond-shaped window panes, tile floor, stark overhead lighting, and audiences lining three sides of the stage enhance the play's boxed-in, eerie atmosphere. Costumes by Tammy Berlin and sound design by Gregory Scharpen follow expectations, adding haunting touches without distracting.