Fangs for the Memories

The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club was wise to schedule the current production of Dracula, Mac Wellman’s take on Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel, after parent’s weekend. Throughout, it is unsparing, unsettling and unwaveringly weird.

Wellman has built himself a nice little perch above the landscape of traditional American theater, from which he occasionally leans out and spits at the ground below. He is one of contemporary theater’s dark princes of sensual excess and linguistic innovation; his works focus on the spectacle and grotesquery of extreme personalities and places.

To complement his eccentric creations, he employs language so richly textured and wildly unconventional that it seems to be drunk on its own words. Dissolving the long-hewn pillars of “good message” and “good taste,” he gives gaudy and vulgar personalities, vaudevillian song-and-dance and narrative non-sequitur the freedom to run amok onstage.

Many words have been used to describe Wellman’s play—surreal, intense, innovative, complex, depraved, witty, excessive, frightening, hysterical, manic—but “easy to like” have never been among them.

Mainstream acceptance, of course, has never been Wellman’s goal. The current Dracula, now at the Loeb Experimental Theater, deserves much credit for remaining staunchly true to Wellman’s spirit and creating a hauntingly memorable evening.

The audience enters the black box theater and discovers it filled with fog. A couple of large, industrial-looking contraptions sit on the floor. These structures, which vaguely resemble natural forms, and throughout the performance will morph into laboratories and cabaret-club walls, are lit from the inside with ghostly colored lights. The audience can’t make sense of any of it, but knows they are somewhere else.

When the lights die, a figure creeps onstage. Suddenly she flicks on a flashlight, delivering a quick start to all. The action immediately roars forward; characters, entering with minimal warning or fanfare, cut large and impressive figures. Sharp and striking sound effects abound, from snaps of a whip to the clanking of metal wheels.

Just when the audience is getting warmed up, three decidedly vampy Vampyrettes in lace (Grace M. Catenaccio ’04, Ipek Mutlu ’05, Cara Zimmerman ’05) perform a dance that’s part trance, part burlesque. Then they dive hungrily at a squirming baby in a cloth sack, smacking their fangs. To borrow a line from Count Dracula, this play is “pure otherness.”

In his treatment of standard theater elements—certainly of language—Wellman can be rather vampirish himself. He takes an old word or phrase, drains it dry and then raises it from the dust transformed. Characters in Dracula contort words in eerily brilliant ways, which only grow eerier as they become more possessed (“there is hair growing into my head,” sings one of the particularly mad). When they can’t find the words to describe the alien situations they come upon, they are forced to invent their own (e.g., “zoo-ophagus,” one obsessed with eating life).

In a play where words are so vital, the thrust of the show lies in the actors’ abilities to make their words heard and the effect of those words clear. In this area, the production has its notable flaw. Some of the actors whisk through or swallow their lines; others seem uncomfortable with the accents they have had to adopt. While it is not imperative to catch every bit of dialogue (after all, there’s a lot of it), a few too many viewers at the performance I attended had to turn to their friends for assistance or translation.

Some performers, nevertheless, deserve special praise for their delivery of the language. Jason T. Fitzgerald ’04, playing doomed victim Jonathan Harker lends a cadence and lucidity to the nonsense he spews. And David N. Huyssen ’02, playing Dracula sans black cape (it’s white!) but with a dynamite Transylvanian accent, releases sentences into the air with such surety and depth that they linger like smoke rings.

With the assistance of an able crew, director Gregory J. Gagnon ’04 keeps one continually astonished by what is seen. Throughout the show, the sense of being in another world, one utterly beyond comprehension, is skillfully maintained. And though the ending registers as abrupt and unsatisfying, it is faithfully interpreted.

One of the defining attributes of theater is its immediacy. Dramatic appearances, sudden transformations, suggestive dances and loud screams have a way of impressing themselves upon an audience as they never can on the written page or the film screen.

This Dracula, both the script and the production, is ultimately commendable for its excellent use of its medium. Though it’s hard to tell whether a theatergoer will like or even appreciate this show, what is certain is that it won’t soon be forgotten.