Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Dracula
Theatre Guild of Webster Groves
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of The 39 Steps


Elizabeth Knocke and Ben Ritchie
Photo by Robert Stevens
Let's just agree that, from here on out, Dracula should always be played by a woman. Preferably by the rail-thin, huge-eyed Elizabeth Knocke. She brings to the stage all the elegance (and courtliness) and cruel dominance of an ageless vampire.

And with that surprising update to the legend of a 500-year old Romanian nobleman, the whole thing comes back to life with a bang.

So, instead of some fantasy of irresistible male dominance, we have a highly dominant woman—preying on the other women in the sanatorium of Bram Stoker's novel, creating more dangerously empowering female transformations in the process. It is extremely intriguing, and I'm sure someone could write a whole treatise on the subject (for or against). But only because the transformations themselves are so splendid.

The three actresses on the stage in this version by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston occupy "quantum" states of mind: sometimes small and approachable, sometimes grand and horrific. And each of the three actresses handles the jump from state to state with delightful facility, under the guidance and reassurance of director Dustin Reichmuth.

The men, therefore, are the true victims in this melodrama (when the women are in charge), and it's quite unexpected, the doubt and terror they endure over their lover, or daughter, or servant, or closest neighbor.

But it's really all about the Count, isn't it?

Ms. Knocke is stylish and restrained, but deadly serious—the pronouns are changed for her sake, but not the courtly title attached to the famous name. And the traditional accent rolls off her tongue like a contented purr. It's just delicious, watching her size-up her opponents, or drift up behind her next victim, or just stand and wait for all the silly mortals to finish with their nonsense.

It's a perfect version of the story for the venerable Theatre Guild of Webster Groves—there's only one special effect to speak of, but great character development and basically just one set. The theater is upstairs in an old, converted house, where space is somewhat limited, and lavish budgets are not available. But when you get a good script and a really fine cast, what need of money?

Likewise, the furniture seems to have been borrowed from someone's home: a pleasant dark leather sofa and chair, but without the usual Victorian trimmings to hide the legs of furniture; nor are there any fringy fabrics draped around the familiar men's study. It is a Dracula for the post-feminist era, without table-skirts. So, if you know just that much about Victoriana, you could easily posit a coming remorselessness as you first view that set, where the usual fussiness would be expected. Or (more likely) it just wasn't in the budget. But in a production where everything seems to succeed, almost providentially, even the stark, stern legs of the tables and sofa and chair serve to deepen a gothic sense of gloom.

The women, of course, wear excellent skirts, thanks to draper Niki Newcomb, particularly the dark riding clothes of the Count, trimmed as they are in red. But in spite of the generally solid costuming, the excellent Steve Garrett, as Doctor Seward, probably needs a vest. When he takes off his suit-coat, he looks like he just stepped out of a conference call in the back office of some minor retail outlet. The actor himself is psychologically immaculate, finding deep and sincere worry over his daughter and patients.

Alongside, as Van Helsing, the infinitely rational actor Ben Ritchie gets to deliver the story's most incredible monologs, in stalwart fashion (reminding us of the most recent Godzilla movie, with the great Bryan Cranston handling all the back story, before he's killed and the endless action sequences really take over). It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it, and this Van Helsing is 100% a man of the science of his time.

Rachel Bailey as Seward's daughter (and Jonathan Harker's fiancĂ©e), is very fine, oscillating between heartbreaking fear in her saner moments, to a really odd madness, fearsome in a whole different way from what you'd expect—sexually ferocious—when under the sway of the Count. Maxwell Knocke (husband of the leading lady) unhinges his heart and mind in complete service to the play, as Harker and Seward follow Van Helsing toward the final confrontation.

Even the servants are excellent. Laura Gibbons, as the maid, occupies vastly different territories in her performance; and Brad Kinzel has character to spare (and the brains to control it) as the sanatorium's orderly, Butterworth.

And, lest we forget, Mr. Renfield: Mark A. Neels is just as strong as all the others (his character eats insects to gain strength and life), but he attains very high stature, most notably after the intermission, in a long scene in which Renfield struggles like a drowning man, between madness and what may be his genuinely superior mind. The key to the success of the whole show seems to have been a great turnout at auditions, as the show's producer mentioned before-hand, and a director who demands nothing less than the starkest authenticity.

There is even a musical accompanist, Kate Arendes (at the show I saw), who provides very stylish, almost anguished electric guitar mood-music out on the far stage right of the apron. It's a great touch that further heightens the suspense.

Through November 15, 2015, at 517 Theatre Lane, along Couch Ave. in Webster Groves. For more information visit theatreguildwg.org.

Cast
Miss Wells: Laura Gibbons
Jonathan Harker: Maxwell Knocke
Doctor Seward: Steve Garrett
Abraham Van Helsing: Ben Ritchie
Renfield: Mark A. Neels
Butterworth: Brad Kinzel
Lucy Seward: Rachel Bailey
Dracula: Elizabeth Knocke

Production Staff
Director: Dustin Reichmuth
Assistant Director: Janelle Wilger
Stage Manager: Orevia Vongsa
Set Designer: Daniel "DJ" Ludwig
Costume Designer: Niki Newcomb
Lighting Designer: Carl Wickman
Electrician: Kevin Bowman
Assistant Costumer: Karen Scales
Light/Sound Board Operator: Rachel Downing
Musicians: Kate Arendes and Owen Ragland


-- Richard T. Green


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