For Rebecca Rovezzi’s site-specific staging of Kate Hamill’s staunchly feminist adaptation of Dracula (★★☆☆☆), Rorschach Theatre has staked out a former firehouse on the redeveloped campus of long-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Inside the tight space, scenic designer Sarah Markley conjures a properly creepy atmosphere, draping the set and furniture in white, lit in evocative hues of blue, green, fuchsia, and of course, blood red by James Morrison.
Employing a recorded score, sound designer Kenny Neal fills out the spooky environs with sharply-timed snippets of delirious piano runs and banged-out chords.
Some of the bric-a-brac on the walls and shelves might just be left over from the space’s days as a firehouse. But generally the clutter suggests history, a nod to the lives that have passed through an asylum that houses madwoman Renfield (Christina Day), or the Transylvanian castle home of Dracula (Ben Topa) and his vampire brides Marilla (Jolene Mafnas) and Drusilla (Marissa Liotta).
Rovezzi and company create the right mood and setting for a bold reimagining of the preeminent vampire legend. The only thing missing is the Count himself, who, though not exactly the lead character of Stoker’s novel, still had more to do than in this adaptation.
Conceptually, it’s fitting for a story that centers on the roles of women in society, and in this gothic horror milieu specifically, to let heroine Mina Harker (Jessica Ludd) take the lead, alongside the intrepid vampire-hunting female Dr. Van Helsing (Phoenix Cross).
Both Ludd and Cross register assured portrayals of independent-minded women existing somewhat — or greatly in Van Helsing’s case — at odds with the strictures of their time.
While lunatic Renfield rants, not unintelligently, on the subject of female empowerment and disenfranchisement, Mina learns how Renfield’s lot might befall others of their gender. On the word of her husband, any woman in Victorian England can find herself committed to the madhouse.
Beyond elucidating grim realities about gender inequality, and sending Mina unto the breach with no-nonsense Van Helsing to save the day, the play finds humor in portraying the limited thinking of sexists like Dr. George Seward (Erik Harrison), beau of Mina’s bestie Lucy (Bri Houtman).
The cast makes solid jokes of Seward growing increasingly hysterical as he insists Mina needs to calm down, and of his reaction to being shushed by the forthright Van Helsing.
Dr. Seward yelling, “You’re making my asylum a madhouse,” takes the joke almost too far, but Harrison doesn’t overplay the arch tone. The same can’t be said of Conor Patrick Donahue’s doltish Jonathan Harker.
On the whole, though, Seward squabbling with Van Helsing and Mina provides comic relief without adding suspense or intrigue. That’s where the vamp on the marquee might come in, but the show features not nearly enough of Topa’s alluring, good-humored Count. Dracula’s presence in the story is sidelined and he’s not replaced in the role of potent, all-encompassing antagonist, except by sexism.
And his brides don’t do the trick as a substitute, neither via the script nor in this production, so the element of fear feels lacking. The final act tension simmers only tepidly, not quite fulfilling the promise of the apt setting, seductive Count, and radical revision of Stoker’s immortal horror tale.
Dracula runs through Nov. 6 at The Firehouse at the Parks at Walter Reed, 6810 Cameron Dr. NW.
Tickets are $10 to $45.
Call 202-399-7993, or visit www.rorschachtheatre.com.
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