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Theatre Cedar Rapids sinks its teeth into ‘Dracula’

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Dracula

Theatre Cedar Rapids — through Nov. 3

(L-R) Mina (McKayla Sturtz) encounters the Monster (Jacob Kostiv) in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Dracula.’ — Studio Reserved/TCR

Vampires. I’m a rabid fan. From Bram Stoker to Joss Whedon, I cannot get enough of the mythos of the beings that control your mind and drink your blood. The Count at the center of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ current production is one of the most dramatized figures in modern culture. Though the recent resurgence of zombie hordes both on- and off-screen may be giving vampires (in general) a run for their money, no one character has been immortalized as often as Dracula. And if TCR’s ticket sales are any indication, this lone monster and his violent delights still have a powerful hold on our collective imaginations.

There are several iterations of vampires throughout history and director Kehry Anson Lane manages to honor each and every one of them in his production of William McNulty’s 2008 adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula — without muddying the waters. We see the beast, the lothario, the cultured sophisticate and the vindictive aristocrat all in turn. Each facet of myth is captured and delivered as dependent upon the Count’s mood. This play manages to be frightening, funny and physically impressive all at the same time.

It is a particularly inspired choice to have the Brides open the play with a highly stylized pantomime. A flashlight on gauzy fabric illustrates a ship tossing on the sea, as Renfield (Mic Evans) reads Seward’s letter to Van Helsing out loud, detailing the events that lead up to his arrival in the next scene. This sets up some wonderful lighting and technical devices that are woven throughout the play.

Rachel Potthoff’s lighting design and Tommy Truelsen’s sound design bring a depth and breadth to the world of the Grandon Studio in a way I’ve never seen that space used. It was beautiful to behold. Initially I was afraid that these devices may get to be a bit much, but they were used judiciously to point up important moments. Each special effect enhanced, rather than detracted from, the scene it was used in.

The Count’s voice only echoes when it ought to, because he’s gaining control of someone’s mind. When Van Helsing (Tad Paulsen) and Dracula (Matthew James) battle in the darkness, there’s no creepy mood lighting or campy smoke billowing; it’s just two men, a dark theater and a wildly bobbing flashlight. The effect literally drove me to the edge of my seat in anticipation.

The Brides (Bettina Brakeman, Hanna Mostly, Sarah Sawin) have a little fun with Harker (Christopher Schubert) in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Dracula.’ — Studio Reserved/TCR

I could go on and on about the theater magic that makes this production so effective but I’d hate to spoil too much. Suffice to say the planning and detail that went into bringing this world to life was nothing short of breathtaking.

Joe Link’s stage design was perfect, providing the exact utility required while upholding the delicious aesthetic belonging to the period and genre. I would have thought this space would be difficult to transform from the warm brown of the doctor’s study in the asylum to the cold gray of the cemetery and back again. But the scene transitions were, for the most part, as smooth as silk. This was made possible by two upstage turntables that were either bookcases or pillars depending on the location and downstage walls that moved to become tombs when the scene called for it.

The costume team (Joni Sackett, Kathryn Huang and Jessica Helberg) rocked it too, with sumptuous fabrics and deep colors that seemed to melt away from characters as they lost their agency. Even the monster (Jacob Kostiv), who in any other context might have looked campy, fit into the overall aesthetic of the piece seamlessly.

(L-R) Mic Evans as Renfield; Matthew James as the titular count in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Dracula.’ — Studio Reserved/TCR

There were no weak links among the actors either. James’ Dracula was as flirtatious and sensual in one moment as he was vicious and feral in the next. Paulsen’s Van Helsing was as warm and commanding as John Miersen’s Seward was traumatized and conciliatory. Claire Boston’s Lucy was charming and affecting where her fiancé Harkin (Christopher Schubert) was bewildered and vengeful. Each character was wildly well cast, right down to the hospital staff and Dracula’s Brides.

While everyone was excellent, I will give special mention to Mic Evans for his Renfield. Evans was brilliant in this role. Vacillating between being bedeviled by his enslavement, enthralled by his master, enthused by his petty deceptions, and incapacitated by his existing mental disease, he manages to distinguish each mood. Sliding into cartoon territory would be easy but Evans never gives into that temptation. He is hilarious, pitiable, engaging, and sympathetic. It’s rough terrain, navigated well.

TCR has added shows to their nearly sold-out run and if I were you, I’d act quickly to make sure a seat at one of them was mine. This is a truly unique show that uses every theatrical device available to it to breathe new life into an old story. Plus, I mean, it’s super on-point for the season.

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