Building a new ‘Dracula’

The Building Stage takes on familiar topics and makes them feel new. The three-year-old theater group has already reinterpreted Hamlet and Moby-Dick into its own stage language, which founder Blake Montgomery calls “physical theater.” On Friday night, a remarkable rendition of Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel Dracula opened at the Near West Side theater.

This is Dracula told as a silent film, but with live actors instead of celluloid. The play, “conceived and directed” by Montgomery and “created and performed” by a cast of eight, contains virtually no spoken dialogue. The actors silently mouth their lines to one another and wave their arms with the sorts of big gestures seen in 1920s movies, pausing occasionally for titles spelling out their words to appear on a screen above the stage. The lighting cues in this show are amazingly specific and precise (kudos to lighting designer Aaron Weissman), making it look easy as the cast pulls off a marathon feat of strange miming. With gauzy curtains frequently being flung back and forth, the set (designed by Jessica Kuehnau and Brandon Wardell) allows a fluid sense of changing scenes. All the while, Shostakovich music sets the mood perfectly.

Before starting the Building Stage, Montgomery worked with Redmoon Theatre, and the two companies share a similar vibe. Dracula includes at least one stroke of theatrical genius, the sort of device you expect in a Redmoon show: At various times, cast members display pictures. They’re almost like cinematic close-up shots, or the two-dimensional equivalents of props. When Renfield hears flies buzzing, an actor standing nearby flashes a picture of a fly. When a doctor examines Lucy’s neck, another actor holds up a picture of two bite marks on a neck.

If my memory of Stoker’s novel is correct, this is a pretty faithful adaptation. It’s certainly a lot closer to the flow of Stoker’s story than most of the films based on it. As Montgomery notes in a press release, one of the interesting things about the original 1897 novel is how little Dracula actually appears in it. The vampire constantly lurks in the fears of the main characters, but he’s almost always off-stage. The same is true in the Building Stage’s version, which follows the structure of Stoker’s book. A considerable amount of time passes before the characters even figure out that vampires are afoot, explaining the mysterious events they’ve been puzzling over throughout Act 1.

The cast is strong, making the characters seem just real enough behind all of that artifice. Ned Record is particularly impressive as Renfield, bringing humor and pathos to this legendarily pathetic lunatic.

Without revealing the play’s ending, I will quibble with the way it wraps up. After sticking with Stoker’s story for almost its entire duration, the play steps away from the original Dracula at the very end, changing in tone and offering an alternative theory to explain all of the events we’ve just seen. It’s an intriguing idea, but once the play veers off in this new direction, it doesn’t seem to know exactly how to end. In spite of that, this Dracula is a feast for the eyes and ears.

Dracula continues through Oct. 18 at the Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St., Chicago.

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