Some holiday shows become tradition, annual outings passed down through and binding across generations. But attending Actors Theatre of Louisville’s “Dracula” feels more like a ritual (like the season’s first pumpkin ale or latté), a key event in observing the transition from summer to fall.
“Dracula” opened Friday the 13th and runs through Halloween in the Bingham Theatre. Directed by William McNulty, the production changes in small ways from year to year, but it rarely fails to properly usher in the longer nights of autumn. The gothic thriller is the theater’s second-longest running production, and ahead of the national curve as the country’s only annual “Dracula” production.
McNulty’s production uses his own streamlined, action-packed adaptation of Hamilton Deane and John Balderston’s dramatization of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel. Dr. Seward (Joe Curnutte, a member of the 2004-05 acting apprentice company), having watched his fiancée Mina die of a mysterious wasting disease, has summoned his old friend Van Helsing (McNulty) to his seaside sanitarium to help him uncover possible scientific or occult explanations for the disease.
Despite being warned by resident lunatic Renfield (the returning Marc Bovino, another apprentice company alum), Van Helsing and Seward identify new neighbor Count Dracula as the cause and plan to take him out before he kills family friends Lucy in the same manner. The action moves quickly after the missing Jonathan Harker (David Jackson) resurfaces, with blood flowing liberally into the final fight scene, which concludes, as it has for years, with a rousing pyrotechnic finale.
Randolph Curtis Rand is back as the creepy count who moves to England to take advantage of the country’s population density and lack of familiarity with cautionary Carpathian folk tales. McNulty casts Dracula not as a seductive charmer but as an unequivocal monster, and so Rand’s Dracula is courtly but sinister, utterly devoid of even trace remnants of humanity. His savagery is particularly spectacular in his scene with Seward’s assistant Ms. Sullivan (Lauren LaRocca), whom he enthralls.
Bovino’s signature portrayal of Renfield, Seward’s fly-eating patient, is a bit more restrained this year than in past productions. While Bovino’s compelling performance still lends the play some necessary comic relief, the hilarity no longer threatens to overshadow the horror. His fights with orderly Mr. Briggs (the returning Alex Thompson, another former apprentice) remain antagonistic, but hew closer to true struggle than to slapstick.
In fact, all of this year’s fight scenes have been re-choreographed by fight director Drew Fracher, and the result is a much more convincing opening chase and a more intensely physical Lucy (Lindsey Noel Whiting, “A Christmas Carol,” “Lookingglass Alice”). Indeed, Whiting might be the best Lucy yet — a trained acrobat as well as a compelling actor, Whiting’s athleticism makes Lucy’s transformation from sweet well-born girl to proto-vampire quite startling and convincing.
The show has grown progressively bloodier over the years, to the point where it is now just shy of designating a splatter zone, but it’s necessary — without the blood, the psychological tension built throughout the show by moments like a ghostly Mina resurfacing would have (forgive me) no teeth. Atmosphere is served up as skillfully as always by Paul Owen’s set, whose omnipresent stone walls make even an office feel like a dank crypt, the precision team of Ben Marcum and Tony Penna on sound and light design (so vital to a horror production), and whomever rolls out that delightfully spooky carpet of dry ice fog at the top of the show.