Iowa City Community Theatre Presents: Dracula
Johnson County Fairgrounds — through Oct. 30
Perhaps the quintessential story in the horror canon, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula has gotten countless treatments from a wide variety of sources over the past 119 years. Everything from cereal and Sesame Street to faithful films and spin-off comic books have been touched by the legend of the Count from Transylvania, in ways both whimsical and terrifying. One of the more recent adaptations is playwright Steven Dietz’s 1996 play, one of several stage versions of the tale (the first being by Stoker himself). It’s a tight telling of the sprawling narrative, highlighting some of the more interesting themes.
Iowa City Community Theatre opened its production of Dietz’s Dracula last weekend at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. The show, directed by Christina Patramanis featured some stand-out performances, but suffered from a general lack of consistency and overwhelmingly distracting sound design. In many ways, the production was like a survey of the history of the character. It was, at various times, serious, campy and frightening, with very little agreement between the actors on what kind of play they are in.
The set design (Lucas Gibson) was lovely. The levels were well-used and the space divided fairly cleanly (although at times, actors crossed in and out of locations in ways inconsistent with established entryways). Overall, the costuming (Jill Beardsley) was quite good as well.
However, three very specific design elements of the production were frustrating enough to distract from the action: Lucy (Jen Brown)’s wig, Mina (Melissa Kaska)’s final dress and Dracula (Joseph Dobrian)’s makeup (makeup design by Jacy Jo Fitzpatrick).
The reddish-blonde wig seemed to sit heavy on Brown’s head; it was not natural to her skin tone, nor did it move naturally. It matched an aspect of the character that was significant in the book, but unremarked on in the play, and thus seemed an unnecessary hindrance to the actress. The dress that Kaska wore in the final scene, a long, velvety tank dress that had been part of her costume the entire time, was far too modern on its own for the established era. And it was entirely unclear what was being attempted with Dobrian’s makeup. If he was meant to look gaunt or inhuman, then it was too heavy-handed; he looked more as though he were wearing war paint.
The most compelling scenes in the show were also the simplest. Moments between Kaska’s Mina and Brian Tanner as Abraham Van Helsing, for example, were often lovely. The two knew the hearts of their characters well, and played off of each other with aplomb. Jordan Running as John Seward and Brown as Lucy often made interesting choices, as well, although there was little chemistry between them (or anywhere in the show, which was largely sanitized of its sexual implications).
What was most frustrating about this production was the sound (James P. Caldwell). From the outset, it induced confusion rather than conveying mood. The pre-show music was distracting and seemingly irrelevant. The music during the show was a scattershot of eras and modes, with everything from hackneyed horror tropes to modern intensity. It was extremely inconsistent, thematically, and it was very, very loud. There were times when that seemed intentional, but, without mics, there were actors who couldn’t be heard even when shouting. Hopefully that aspect was a technical flub and the balance was better at other performances after opening night. However, the overall musical choices, and the timing at which it was used in the show, made it difficult to enjoy the more entertaining aspects of the production. I found myself angry and frustrated every time it came on.
If you’re looking for a good scare, your Halloween weekend would be better spent at a haunted house. However, if you’re entertaining young ones or those who prefer a tamer terror, Dracula runs tonight at tomorrow at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. Tickets to the show are $9–17.