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Review Thu Oct 29 2015

The Mammals' All Girl Dracula is Uneven and Bloodless

All-Girl Dracula

With the recent explosion of Dracula and vampire narratives, in particular, in our collective culture, a straightforward exploration of Bram Stoker's classic seems ripe for adaptation. Given the popularity of cable series such as True Blood, Penny Dreadful, The Vampire Diaries, heck, even the epic '90s series Buffy and its spinoff Angel--There's a lot of material to unpack. That's why I was very excited to see The Chicago Mammals' adaptation of Bram Stokers' Dracula, with all female players--All Girl Dracula.

Artistic director Bob Fisher takes a turn with twisting the vampire narrative in this adaptation that features a close, intimate presentation, with audience members seated in a U-shape around the stage. (The black box only holds 20 audience members and they sit on the same level as the players, who weave in and out of the audience space.) The idea is a thrilling and original one--taking roles that are not typically played by women and allowing them the space to perform these roles.

Some of the actresses in the production do an excellent job with this. I was particularly impressed with Amy E. Harmon as Jonathan Harker, whose descent into madness and embodiment of the obsessive need to feed was extremely well done. Also noteworthy were the performances of Whitney LaMora as Mina Murray and Shasha Warren as Lucy Westerna. The pair plays off one another nicely and each inhabited her "type" with excellence (Mina more as the emotional and dark of the pair with Lucy as the enthusiastic and ditsy counterpart).

The production design was also interesting. The use of the basic black box was effective in creating intimacy between audience and performers. Also, the use of levels (in the small black platforms interspersed between audience seats) and the basic bench set pieces standing in for a variety of furniture worked well. The video titles between scenes helped set the stage for each new bit of development in the narrative. And I loved the puppets, designed by Emily Breyer. The little girl puppet was especially "creeptastic."

Also interesting was the makeup, with the male characters' dramatic, angular makeup (suggestive of facial hair) with the women painted white with rosy cheeks, almost like porcelain dolls. The hair design was less successful, however. Some of the male characters' hairstyles would have worked better in a larger house, where the audience was more removed. Particularly distracting was the detail of the dozens of bobby pins used to hold back Dr. Jack Seward's (played by Anne Wilson) hair. But overall, Rachel Boylan did a great job with the characters' looks (minor problems cited below, aside).

Those were the highlights for me. One of my general problems with this production--(and the reason I'm particular about theater) is that the devil is in the details. And there were myriad details in this production that pulled me out of the narrative and made me question director/producer Fisher's choices.

For example, in the very beginning of the play, Mina receives a pair of boots in the mail. Parcel post wasn't signed into law until 1912. If this production Dracula is set in the 1890s (like the book), Mina wouldn't have received boots in the mail for another 20 years. Those boots wouldn't have been in a cardboard box (these weren't in common use as shipping containers until the early 1900s). They wouldn't have had adhesive tape on them, which was invented in the 1870s, but not used as anything but bandages until the '30s. And those boots would not have had zippers on them--the modern zipper wasn't invented until 1913.

If those seem like nitpicky details, I admit that they are. But it's difficult to watch a play as an audience member and have your mind spinning about period appropriateness in a way that takes you completely away from what's being presented onstage. And there were enough those kinds of details that were awry that it seemed like the director wasn't paying careful enough attention. Lucy's makeup was pale and white, but her hands were regular flesh color; Van Helsing's gloves were way too big for her (and given the number of times we were supposed to pay attention to his hands circling a coin in air, it was utterly distracting); and at one point, one of the characters referred to "having dinner reservations"--which I didn't Google, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't common in 1890s New England.

More uneven was the treatment of the narrative. If an audience member was not familiar with the story of Dracula (as I wasn't--I had to have my companion whisper plot points to me throughout, because I kept getting lost), it was hard to follow. And some of the cultural loading I expected--and, frankly, the carnage I wanted to see--wasn't there. And the cultural quotations I didn't like, e.g. the direction of the characters of Dracula (Sarah Koerner) and Van Helsing (Erin Orr) fell into caricature that was difficult to watch. Dracula's accent and mannerisms seemed pulled directly from the series Penny Dreadful while Van Helsing appeared to be channeling Sam Elliott (or worse, at times, Yosemite Sam).

The only characters who seemed to echo what I expected were Dracula's brides, who exemplified the horror and bloodthirsty lust I wanted out of a Dracula production (especially Kelly Yacono in the initial scene of the play--where she played "Giggle Girl" in a manner that was incredibly unsettling and strong). But since this production is positioned as a Halloween play, a little fake blood and a teensy bit of gore or horror would add, as would a sprinkling of terror, a la The Dream Theatre's spot-on Halloween presentations.

And speaking of lust, I was also expecting to see (and probably this is just my cultural bias) a tiny bit of lesbian titillation, especially between characters who were "coupled" as male/female couples. The lack of chemistry and the perfunctory kisses between them smacked of heterosexual actresses trying to make clear the "no homo" point. And I may be biased as a lesbian audience member, but I would tell other potential lesbian audience members to skip this show and just re-watch that one scene in The Hunger (or the 1994 arthouse film, Nadja) for their "lesbian vampire fix" this Halloween season.

Overall, I would say that that this production was uneven. I wouldn't strongly recommend it to audiences, especially with its 2 hour and 30 minute run time (with intermission). It could have stood some editing, clarity of narrative and more attention to detail.

All-Girl Dracula by The Chicago Mammals plays Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm at Zoo Studios, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave. (at Irving Park) and tickets are $25 and are available online. (Be sure to reserve in advance, as the house only holds 20 people per show.)

 
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Sam Shepard / October 30, 2015 12:23 PM

I loved the liberties this production took, but I despise realism. It takes me out of the scene when I see a working sink or coffee maker at Steppenwolf and all I can think is, "that's a real coffee maker." A small theatre on a shoestring(or zipper thin) budget is easier to get over for me.

Andrew Logan / October 31, 2015 12:14 AM

The most cursory of Google searches leads to an Atlantic article that supports the common practice of making dinner and table reservations well throughout the 18th and 19th century, but you do have to admire the brass balls of a reviewer willing to admit that they "haven't looked it up, but here are my feelings about what the facts are." What's less admirable is the casual assumption of the actors sexual orientations which, one would think, given the reviewer's "cultural bias" would lead her to the conclusion that such speculation was tactless and offensive.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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