This year’s production of “Dracula” at Actors Theatre is good. It is possibly even better than it was last year, and last year it was highly superior to the year before.
In 2018, Dramaturg Hannah Rae Montgomery provided some needed trimming to the over-long script, and a few textual changes as well. Coupled with a re-visioning of many moments in the onstage blocking and fighting from Drew Fracher and Jake Guinn, the director and fight director respectively, last year essentially gave us a new play, and went a long way towards updating the aging immortal.
Lucy, Dracula’s main prey, did a lot more fighting back, changing into something more of a survivor than a victim.
Several key sequences that had been intensely gendered became less so, best typified by Dracula becoming an equal opportunity blood sucker, attacking men, women and children, where previously he stuck to snacking on virginal damsels.
These updates are back in the 2019 production, as are Fracher, Guinn, and fan favorite Neill Robertson, again portraying Renfield.
This year, “Dracula” creeps even further into the present with its gender representation and it’s a much bigger change. Van Helsing, Dracula’s main foe, has been played by a man since Actors Theatre began producing the play more than 25 years ago. This year Van Helsing is no longer the aging paternal type of yesteryear, or even last year’s dashing young adventurer. Now Van Helsing is a no nonsense woman of the world (Rebecca Hirota) who is here to kill vampires and has zero time for tomfoolery.
While many theatergoers yearn for change for change’s sake, wishing for ever more progressive takes on classics, what can occasionally be overlooked is how much life can be breathed into a production with a casting choice that upends the established power structure, and erases the status quo.
Before moving onto these new power dynamics, let us pause, and sigh for the one aspect of Van Helsing that I will miss. Last year, Actors Theatre gifted Louisville with actor Santino Craven’s take on Vlad the Impaler, a much sexier Dracula than we have had in years. His interactions with last year’s Van Helsing took on a homoerotic tension that made their scenes really intriguing. Are they going to fight, one wondered, or are they going to wrestle?
Craven is back this year, still sexy, and while we no longer have grist for our Van Helsing-Dracula slash fic, we at least get a moment where Craven turns the heat on with Doctor Seward (Brandon Meeks).
Hirota, on the other hand (and presumably Fracher, too) is uninterested in a will-they won’t-they vibe between Mx. Van Helsing and the Transylvania Fang Boi.
Dracula does try to turn on the charm; he attempts to deliver some lothariac kisses to Van Helsing’s hand when they meet. He gets a big “nope” when Van Helsing offers a business-like handshake instead.
It seems that as a woman and a doctor in Victorian England, Van Helsing has learned to shut down all sorts of predators, including the everyday, the monstrous, the human and inhuman.
She also shows up carrying a weapon, barely disguised as a walking stick.
The lovely thing about these deep semiotic goings on is that the audience can enjoy them but doesn’t need to slow down and examine them, or consider new conflict and aspects of characters that propel the story forward.
Lucy (Megan Massie) and Mina (Mollie Murk) both seem at first to be stereotypical damsels in distress, appearing — as horror conventions demand — suitably graceful, beautiful, and presumably helpless. But Massie and Murk are given the chance to subvert that stereotype, with some very gratifying results that once again improve the play outside of any concerns surrounding stereotypes or the need to combat them. One of “Dracula’s” main flaws, as a script and in its original source material, is that few of the characters grow or change. Lucy’s transformation in the past two years from the previous pushover to the more vibrant and violent Victorian woman we’ve seen recently allows her to have a much more satisfying arc.
While Dracula — spoiler alert for a nearly 123-year-old story — ends the play really most sincerely dead, the production nevertheless ends on something of a cliffhanger: will next year’s “Dracula” see more exciting changes and re-imaginings?
If so, there’s really only one more big change to make: Will Louisville audiences soon see Dracula attack the gender norms of Victorian England even more directly, flying in its face and attacking with her fangs bared?
Dracula continues until October 31, at Actors Theatre, 316 West Main Street. For tickets, and times, visit Actors Theatre online or call (502) 584-1205.