Search This Blog

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Time After Time: John Heimbuch’s “Drakul” at the Red Eye Theater

I'm a Dracula enthusiast. I'm not quite there, but still probably on the verge of being a snob, an aficionado, an elitist scum knowitall talking too loudly in restaurants about Bram Stoker's novel and any number of filmed versions adapted from it. For whatever unknown reasons, probably something to do with my further inexplicable childhood obsessions with Darth Vader and Zorro (I'm guessing capes had something to do with it), I gravitated toward the vampire's image, dwelling over it for a morbid amount of time. Finally, the Stoker novel became the first full-length adult book I read without skimming or reward (e.g. I didn't read it for Book-It points to get a free personal Pizza Hut pizza). Since then I've reread the book many times, leisurely studied the history behind it, and caught several of the films.

A friend of mine is in the new Red Eye theatrical production of Drakul, written and directed by John Heimbuch, so I may have seen it even if it wasn't a new take on Stoker's Dracula. Well, I probably would have lied and announced on Facebook that I was seeing it. Anyway, the production is ambitious, almost good-God admirable ambitious, as Heimbuch has been allotted three hours to be more scrupulously true to the book than almost any other stage or screen version I've seen, including Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 extravaganza with Gary Oldman, a production with which Heimbuch's has several affinities. More than that, Heimbuch seems to have a Dracula "toy playset" for his own imagination, taking these characters as if they were action figures and inserting the missing sections of Stoker's epistolary novel, speculating both on the elliptical elements in the story – to which Stoker may or may not have wanted us to pay close attention – and the fates of the characters several years after they've defeated the vampire. With what I appreciated – being a novice theater goer – as a fine set and opulent costumes, moody lighting, sound effects, and music, Drakul is a scenario Stoker enthusiasts dream and speculate about. It also skilfully avoids the smugness of any cult revisionism.

The local reviews have been predictably mixed. For one thing, the story unveils by its own temporal logic, going back and forth through time with no chronological consistency: it begins at the concluding moments of the novel, in November 1891 when the vampire hunters vanquish Dracula (Charles Hubbell) at the expense of Quincey Morris's (Erik Hoover) life, then goes to 1896 as the novel Dracula, comprised of the journals, diaries, and records of the principle characters, is about to be published, then flashes back to the spring of 1891 when Jonathan Harker (Ian Miller) proposes to Mina Murray (Melissa Anne Murphy). We're back in 1896 when the characters struggle with their memories of the past, then to 1891 with Lucy Westenra's (Joanna Harmon) mysterious sickness and Mina's seduction by the fascinating Prince Vlad Tepes, and so on, until the second half of the play examines Harker's experiences at Castle Dracula before the vampire's London invasion. You can see, admittedly, it is a dizzying design. The play concludes where it began, with an epilogue of the present day (1896) characters reconciling their past secrets. In his free-form narrative, Heimbuch is able to more fully develop Stoker's characters than any other adaptation. Even though the Coppola version, truest of the major Dracula films to the book, has Stoker's full cast of characters, the secondary vampire hunters (Quincy Morris, Lord Arthur Holmwood, and Dr. Jack Seward) don't have enough time to develop empathetic portrayals. But Heimbuch may fall victim, as Graydon Royce in his Star Tribune review claims, to draining the story of its pulse with its back-and-forths, eliminating suspense in lieu of exposition.

But the back-and-forths serve a meaningful purpose for this Dracula, and I think drive towards the full sense of what Drakul is about, and maybe Stoker's novel. Because Dracula is epistolary, it insinuates unreliability on the part of its numerous tellers. If "horror suspense" is sacrificed, a reader of the book will find rewards in the play's provocations to thinking about the book's topical ideas. Everyone that has studied Dracula knows that it is about desire and repression, with a ravenous gypsy threat of unbridled sexuality from the East entering like syphilis into Western civilization. Stoker may never have read Nietzsche – who was insane during its publication – but in retrospect it's interesting how the Victorian characters may represent a kind of modern decadence while Dracula – "the blood is the life" – is an ubermensch embracing and ennobling himself on the base aspects of desire and the will to power, without fear and pity as he takes over the world. The madman Renfield (played by Sam Landman here) utters awful truths when he notes how all life is based on consuming other lives, exploitation, and animal instincts. The ubermensch is able to seduce, destroy, and envelop the object of his desire: he sees, he wants, and he takes. Poor Dr. Seward (Wade Vaughn, excellent as the weasely vein of Heimbuch's story) is encountering the abyss of those animal desires in his sexual longing for the vampy Lucy, played here to perfect "Black Swan do-me" allure by Harmon, and he's troubled by what he feels.

But more than the basic gothic theme of repression versus sexual energy, perhaps Dracula is about Time, and how we reflect on our lives while moving away from a specific moment and into the future. Thinking is not linear. Nothing is ever neatly tied up, and thoughts sneak in like infecting worms. In Stoker's novel, the opening chapters show Jonathan Harker as a man who is almost an automaton in his micromanaging attention to time. We are meant to contrast the archaic and ageless quality of Count Dracula's domicile, the whole "Wild East," with Harker's London, where photography, phonographs, typewriters, rail, and other devices are heralding a new age and ceaseless progressive forward movement. Heimbuch plays particular attention to phonographs, new pens with ready ink, and the cinematograph (an important element also for Coppola, a filmmaker for whom Time and Technology are recurring obsessions). With new advances in science – like blood transfusions – individuals are able to get a step-up on an antiquated or superstitious past, so they think. Thus interpreted, Dracula becomes a symbol for our barbaric past history, the nightmare from which technology attempts to wake us. Though there have been rather feeble and desperate measures (Elizabeth Miller) to prove otherwise – requiring a lot of ignorance to passages in the book, or a three-year-old's concrete thinking process – we know that Stoker based his vampire on Vlad III Tepes (1431-1476), a Wallachian prince known as Dracula (Son of the Dragon/Devil), infamous for his tyranny and use of impalement for political enemies, but also regarded as heroic for his military genius against invading Ottoman Turks. He is Old Europe, suggesting medieval customs, a bloody reactionary imposing his tyrannical will. In Dracula, he is Europe's unconscious emerging and disturbing our repressed selves. In Drakul, with Heimbuch's playful handling of Time and a future reference for his characters, he becomes something more. He is more fully a manifestation of willfully kept secrets and desires, the past in a much more active way intruding on the even keel calm of the present.

From this perspective, Drakul is meaningful in a sort of Eyes Wide Shut spirit. History and time meld with the Stoker themes of repressed desires. It's an ornate version of "Did you fuck that guy?", which is to laugh. The question is whether or not Mina had a fling with Prince Vlad, aka Dracula, the debonair handsome wealthy dude with a foreign accent, played as the ultimate douchebag by Hubbell with nuance and humor. Jonathan is the straight-laced, self-conscious low-key husband, but Dracula gets Mina's juices flowing, so to speak...which leads her to making Jonathan a kind of chump: after she drinks Dracula's blood, she claims in her defense that the vampire threatened to "dash her brains" if she made his presence known. Poor Jonathan, of course, believes her. Heimbuch's play has, in lieu of horror suspense, a treasure trove of resentment and jealousy. Lucy gives Mina a standard defense: "It's okay as long as no one gets hurt." The sin of omission, without context, is no sin at all…though events involving intimacy often have a way of slipping into the spotlight and upsetting things: eyes wide shut.

The play's debates over how the journals and diaries should be printed and open to the public relates to these discomforting truths of the unconscious, and the question of how inadequate words or language can be in expressing any kind of real instance. The texts are wrought with contradictions and there is no certainty as to what has really happened. It must be reformatted, revised, and re-evaluated. Pens are a motif in the play, and it's an object of conspicuous attention to the mad Renfield, a former gentleman (Stoker's text hints that he may have been a philosopher or scholar) who is now "a sane man fighting for his soul." Since returning from Transylvania, Renfield is a character completely submerged in that obscured animal unconscious, and words or signatures have as much meaning as a slash to the throat. History is a maze of confusion in Stoker's Dracula, and each new piece of technology is an attempt to relegate a moment to its place, immortalized and safely stowed away, relegated to a history that can then be forgotten. But as the elderly Mr. Swales, a character from the novel's fifth chapter who has never been dramatized in any of the adaptations (including this one), points out of words chiseled on the Whitby gravestones, "All lies!"

In Drakul, as with Coppola's Dracula, the Count notes his fascination with the "cinematograph," the marvel of how a movie camera can keep one moment flowing eternally in projected light. But Dracula himself is a figure who cannot be placed into a historical context: he has no reflection. He cannot then be photographed or filmed or his voice cannot be heard on a phonograph any more than he can be seen in a mirror. He is without placement or constancy, though there is a hint that his satanic rebellion may have root in the political allegiances of his father (Vlad II, who was first bestowed with the honor of being in the "Order of the Dragon" and so dubbed as "Drakul"), and as such is measured against his own past, which may explain Heimbuch's odd choice for titling the play, as this is all about wrestling with the history.

Drakul works marvelously as a cerebral experience for a Dracula fan, designed to work on our knowledge of the book and its mythology, and expanding on – and remaining true to – the novel's themes. I'm not sure, however, if there is an equivalency between the sexual secrets of Jonathan and Mina. I wish the play was being ironic about Mina's victimization by her vampire hunter protectors, but I think it really wants to dig into a sincere feminist spirit, consequently the play's weak link. Van Helsing (Alan Sorenson) gets kind of a bad rap as an obscurantist and superstitious reactionary religious thinker, trying to keep Mina in her repressed circle of femininity, a revision that feels forced (though re-reading the book, Van Helsing's sanctimoniousness gets quite annoying, a reason why I love Anthony Hopkins' eccentric characterization in the Coppola film). Mina has more agency here, but her "strength" is obscured by a duplicity over which she seems to have no control. Jonathan, whose secret is being sucked dry night after night by Dracula's brides, was less seduced by his erotic victimizers than trapped as a prisoner against his will. Maybe my own admittedly borderline misogynist perspective is a stubborn impediment. For the most part though, I found this to be an endlessly interesting, well-acted speculative treat on one of my longtime lifelong obsessions.

Drakul, a production by the Walking Shadow Theatre Company, is playing through February 26 at the Red Eye Theatre in Minneapolis.

1 comment:

  1. I have attended other performances there in the past - this looks to be another I wouldn't mind checking out.