Chicago Theater Review: DRACULA (The Hypocrites at Mercury Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 14, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Halloween is dangling out in the future, which means that Washington D.C. is finally getting competition in the terror market. The indefatigable Sean Graney, disruptive director/adaptor of The Hypocrites’ thinking theater, just jumped on the scream wagon. He offers us the latest variation on a theme by Bram Stoker (via Vlad the Impaler)—Dracula. A world premiere at Mercury Theater Chicago, this two-hour travesty, adapted by Graney from a sensational(istic) script by Timothy F. Griffin, teems with requisite shocks effects: hemoglobin-hued lighting effects; energetic neck punctures; cat munching; amputations and baby mutilations; repeated and often gratuitous shrieking; and lots of blood but curiously little flesh.

Any treatment of Stoker’s vampire masterwork faces choices, non-negotiable and exclusionary, that limit the colors on the canvas. If it’s sexy, it usually can’t be funny. If it’s satirical, it can’t also be scary. If it’s campy, it can’t be convincing too. In The Hypocrites’ gambit, you can forget the erotic part of the formula: It’s strangely absent in both depiction and direction. (This is not HBO’s True Blood.) As for parody and a fright-filled fear fest, well, this Dracula wants to have its garlic and eat it too. And it’s fairly faithful to its source if not its spirit—though crucifixes, not wooden stakes, are the weapons of choice in battling Nosferatu.

Like the rider who proverbially ran off in all directions, Graney’s salute to the blood-biters and plasma predators isn’t content with action alone. It has an agenda. That message-mongering is obvious when, at a moment of supposed total horror, a character is forced to blurt out that purity is a male invention to suppress women. What the heck?

When camp gets pretentious, the result is scarier than popped veins and spurting capillaries. Graney argues that the characters in Dracula exist somewhere between “repression and liberty.” He specifically means the women, who the men secretly fear as, rejecting domesticity, they gather autonomy and abandon tradition. Graney: “Dracula asks the question: How do you deal with a society that claims to promote equality, yet everyday actions and attitudes prove that the gatekeepers are afraid of losing their advantage?”

In the 120 years since Stoker concocted this potboiler, I don’t think that any artist has ever asked that question. Blood sucking is not a paradigm shift. A neck is a neck is a neck.

Neo-feminist exegeses aside, Graney at least respects the first commandment of the performing arts: “First, entertain!” (“Do no harm” is the second one.) Moving from a Transylvanian castle to a British insane asylum, the action follows the usual trajectory. Inspired to prey by a clumsy visiting estate-agent Jonathan Harker (Maurice Demus), Breon Arzell’s stentorian vampire villain moves—coffin, Romanian soil, and all—to London. He’s already destroyed the independent-minded soubrette Lucy (Janelle Villas) and now fancies the even more evolved Mina (Aurora Real de Asua). Oh—and the count’s fly-eating henchperson Renfield is now female (Erin Barlow), a dubious equal-opportunity promotion to say the least.

Allied with the loony bin’s Dr. Seward (John Taflan) and a rather inept vampire killer Abraham Van Helsing (Robert McClean), they corner the fiend, hoping to overkill the undead. He’s earned it: Promising a “future without pain” and confessing that the drive behind his depredations is to guarantee women an unsafe future forever, Dracula, well, sucks. His ideological isolation is as damning as his deeds. But, when the master of disaster meets the “true death,” there’s no pleasurable payoff. An obnoxious character has just ceased draining arteries.

No question, the Mercury Theater’s Halloween offering is a bit better than the Bard’s “sound and fury signifying nothing.” It’s too frenetic to be dull, and the characters are too contrasted to be ciphers. But Graney definitely chose to dive off the shallow end of Stoker’s pool. The blood in this water is probably not intended.

photos by Brett A. Beiner

The Hypocrites
Mercury Theater Chicago
3745 North Southport Avenue
Wed-Sat at 8; Sat & Sun at 3
ends on November 5, 2017
for tickets, call 773.325.1700
or visit Mercury Theater
for more info, visit The Hypocrites

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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