Monday, March 31, 1997

Drama Review: Dracula strikes a vein at Middlebury

Published in the Mountainview

Last weekend the Department afTheatre. Dance. and Film/Video outdid itself in the Arts Center Studio Theater. "Dracula," directed by visiting director Blake Montgomery '93, was a spectacularly intricate web of mystery. More a show than a play, taking place on a minimalist Brutalist set, "Dracula" engaged without entrancing, mystified without terrifying, and provoked thought without confusing.

The adaptation from the Bram Stoker novel, created by the cast and staff of the 1997 Spring Production Company, was, simply put, a melange. Putting a classical Greek chorus around Victorian characters, providing startlingly accurate sound effects onstage, and with unobtrusive lighting, "Dracula" was more theatrical than it was theater.

It was, to be sure, an excellent production. The set, which did not change throughout the show, took on characteristics of a castle, a house, a tomb, a train, a canal, and a bustling seaport. Character movements and dialogue served as the only transitions between locations; lighting, directions of character entry, and intricately blocked movement throughout the set provided the visual cues which ensured the audience was aware of scene changes.

The main driving force behind the story of "Dracula," that or evil, was persistent but not scary. The secondary force, latent Victorian eroticism, was only present in the character of the Count himself, who engaged in pelvic thrusts with victims, while drinking blood from their necks.

Complicating matters of audience comprehension, but providing illumination into the story, was the gender reversal: male cast members played female characters, and female actors played the male roles. At first disorienting, this switch became believable and integrated well into the performance.

A part of the show which did not fit well was the sole foray by a character into the audience. Dracula, terrified of his pursuers. raced up the stairs, paused, and then exited from the balcony. It seemed a gratuitous move, in a theater world where audience involvement is becoming commonplace. Monologues were most often directed at the audience, as expositions, rather than solitary ruminations.

The cast was solidly commited to flexibility. Costumes did not change throughout the play, despite widely differing circumstances and locations. The change of a character's nationality took advantage of the caricature skills of a native Texan actor; the set's versatility and believability has already been explained. Each member of the chorus also had a part in the actual plot of the tale. Further, the physical demands of moving around the set on foot, much less on all fours or on stomachs or backs, were strenuous, and were more than in a more conventional production of this story.

The character of Dracula, played by Michole Biancosino '98, was excellent. Not only was the makeup and costume extravagant and clear from the first moment about who this character was, but Biancosino's portrayal of the possessed and tortured Count was at once reserved and passionate. Motivated by desire, relentless, and fearful of failure, Dracula's attempts to create more vampires, and his ultimate defeat at the hands of determined cross-wielding pursuers, were well played. They conformed to some stereotypes of Dracula's behavior, while also illustrating a tortured side of the Count often lost amid the evil and fear he symbolizes.

The rest of the cast, some well-known on the Middlebury stage, and others newcomers, all conducted themselves with what can only be called Middlebury aplomb: their skill, courage, and attitude reflected how hard hey thad worked, and the challenge of the intensity of the story they performed.

This was, it must be noted, a rare event in the history of Middlebury theater. Not a single person stood to applaud at the end or the Saturday matinee performance. Everyone stayed seated throughout the applause. There was no encore appearance of the cast. It was as if the entire audience had become infected with some of the apprehension and malaise they had just seen acted out on the stage. The audience was also swift to depart after the cast retreated from the stage. Neither an indictment of the show, or a laudatory indicator, it demonstrated that uncertainty about the world had been assumed by the audience, at least in the short term.