Actors Theatre opened the “Dracula” crypt Friday for its 18th consecutive Halloween season run. Directed and adapted by William McNulty, the play is based on Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel about a mysterious count from Transylvania who terrorizes a seaside town in England.
The gothic thriller is a perennial crowd-pleaser whose special effects (including pyrotechnics and a bang-up finale) never fail to impress the audibly appreciative audience. If this is your first time at “Dracula” and you are not entirely faint of heart, try to book front-row seats. The actors make excellent use of the Bingham’s round stage and the low stone walls surrounding it.
Actors Theatre continues to tweak and push this holiday tradition, never staging the exact same play twice. This year’s production, for example, is a lot bloodier than previous runs (fair warning). So even if you’ve seen “Dracula” so many times you remember V. Craig Heidenreich as the Count, it’s never a dull way to welcome the fall season.
While John Balderston and Hamilton Deane first adapted Stoker’s novel for the stage, McNulty adapted their adaptation a few years ago, streamlining the plot for maximum action—less talking, more biting. McNulty also plays Van Helsing the vampire hunter, sent for by Seward (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) when his fiancée dies of a mysterious, wasting illness caused by an unexplained loss of blood.
This year’s production features several other returning cast members, including the riveting Marc Bovino as Renfield, a role he seems to have single-handedly redefined. He’s hilarious as the bug-eating lunatic barely controlled by man or monster, and offers some much-needed comic relief from the horrors surrounding Seward’s friends and family. But his ravings come with their own particular tension, as he serves as living reminder of the vampire’s power and wrath. Van Helsing, Seward and Jonathan Harker might get the dashing action sequences, but Renfield asks the play’s central, heartbreaking question: “where is mercy?” Nobody answers.
Randolph Curtis Rand is also back as Count Dracula after a two-year absence, and for my money, he is the gold standard vamp (he’s the one on the poster, even in years when he’s not on stage), perfectly sinister as the stranger from the Carpathians who moves into the deserted abbey next door to Seward’s asylum. He has a few funny lines (“I never drink … wine.”) but for the most part, Rand’s Dracula is more gruesome Nosferatu than Edward Cullen, and the monster he transforms into erases all doubt his courtly appearance might otherwise provide.
Dracula sets his sights on Lucy (Marianna McClellan), Seward’s houseguest and fiancée to the dashing Harker (acting apprentice Andy Reinhardt), who traveled to Transylvania to close the abbey real estate deal and went missing soon after. McClellan was a stand-out member of last year’s apprentice company, and it’s great fun to see her back at Actors really owning such a meaty role. Seward’s orderly Mr. Briggs is played by another former apprentice, Alex Thompson, infusing a quiet dignity into a role that is often played broadly for laughs, especially in his scenes with Ms. Sullivan (acting apprentice Christa Wroblewski).
Paul Owen’s set is as creepy as ever, and scene changes are handled swiftly (at times to eerie effect) by the Bingham’s trusty traps. Between Tony Penna (lights), Benjamin Marcum (sound) and Phillip Allgeier (some new video touches), the atmosphere is as spooky as a Victorian sanatorium stalked by a bloodthirsty demon should be.
“Dracula” runs through October 31 in the Bingham Theatre.