By Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston, and Bram Stoker
Directed by Scott Alan Small
Through Oct. 31 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park
Bring wine and cheese-or, you know, candy corn and Twix-to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of Dracula, and arrive early so you can lounge under the tent set up in front of the Patapsco Female Institute's ruins. On opening weekend, a number of families camped out with several bottles of wine and bags of snacks before the play began signaled to us that half the experience here is the pregame.
That pregaming won't distract you from what amounts to a fun, light-hearted performance of the 1927 stage version of Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), but the beauty of the ruins might. High up in Ellicott City's hills, the mostly restored former girls' boarding school serves as a breathtaking setting for Dracula: sheer white curtains billowing in windows, a sun-bleached wooden balcony that peers down into a brick courtyard, a half-destroyed stone wall attached to an enormous fireplace. That it's open-aired mostly plays directly into the Dracula's theme (think circling buzzards, rustling trees) and only occasionally detracts (airplanes).
You can walk around before the show starts or during intermission, but the performance also takes you on a partial tour of the place. The opening scene-in which Jonathan Harker (Matthew Sparacino) and his prospective father-in-law, Dr. Seward (Frank Mancino), establish that young Lucy Seward is ill and Professor Van Helsing is on his way to tend to her-takes place at the base of the ruins' long stone staircase before shifting to the building's interior. Wisely, the audience is ushered to seats and the balcony for the remainder of the first act, allowing one to be immersed in the play's action.
Dracula, here, won't terrify you the same way that reading Bram Stoker's story alone in bed at night will; the CSC's performance doesn't really bring Victorian Gothic horror to life the way, say, Vincent Price's take on The Pit and the Pendulum does. But the acting, especially by Matthew Ancarrow as Renfield and Blythe Coons as Lucy, keeps the audience engaged throughout this telling of the familiar tale.
Lucy suffers from the same mystifying illness from which her friend Mina died. Her father, who runs a sanitarium, and her suitor have not been able to do much to remedy the problem, but the Sewards' neighbor, Count Dracula (Baldwin-brother lookalike Michael P. Sullivan), seems to restore some liveliness in Lucy when he comes around. When Professor Van Helsing (Scott Graham) arrives, he's quick to suspect Dracula for what he is, and once he convinces the others as such, a calculated quest to slay the centuries-old villain, once and for all, ensues. (Millennials who attend will chuckle when they're confronted with how much Harry Potter rips off Dracula.)
Van Helsing carries Dracula's plot, as he wields all of the knowledge, and Graham's take on the character isn't as forceful or confident as Edward Van Sloan's in the 1931 film. Sullivan, however, puts just as much flourish into his movements as Lugosi does in that version: When embracing a victim, about to lunge for her throat, Sullivan pulls back his head suddenly and lets out a loud hiss before diving back in again.
Especially when accompanied by the pointed teeth and red contact lenses Sullivan dons, the histrionics can seem silly-but then again, it would be a challenge to take any straightforward production of Dracula too seriously. And it's worth noting that even the 1927 stage version, while being financially successful, was largely panned by theater critics. The writer for the New York Herald Tribune called Lugosi "a rigid hobgoblin." There's only so much scare any theater company can put into the show without making it a haunted house, and that's doubly true for the CSC troupe.
Still, they manage a handful of surprises quite well, and the two standout performers act out fear convincingly. Ancarrow's unhinged portrayal of Renfield, the fly-catching "life-eating" maniac, is captivating; our eyes are on him at all points. And Coons as Lucy manages to transform her face when she's ill and distressed and when Dracula looms about her; she vacillates between terror and transfixion. The company's decision to include a role for Mina, Lucy's deceased friend, in the performance is an excellent touch. As she lurks in the background in scenes, one wonders when she will burst into action-adding an element of suspense.
A sophisticated play Dracula is not, but it's well worth admission for the experience the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company puts on in the ruins. When they start to perform in their new theater downtown on Redwood Street (they'll also continue to perform in the ruins seasonally), one hopes their productions there are just as immersive.
Dracula will be performed Oct. 24-27 and Oct. 29-31. For more information, visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com.