Co-director Christopher Henley’s fascination for the Prince of Darkness

This article originally appeared on DCTheatreScene.com

Between Bela Lugosi and Bella from the Twilight series, there was Hammer Studios. From the late 1950s through the mid 1970s, that venerable British institution reimagined and reinvigorated the horror genre. It produced original material, movies with names like The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, but it also returned to some of the classic narratives of the genre, and it was those versions that first introduced me to, for instance, The Phantom of the Opera. (The Hammer version starring Herbert Lom was the first version I ever saw. Whether that is the reason I prefer it to all versions I’ve seen subsequently, from stage musical to the earlier, more revered classic film versions with the Phantom played by Claude Rains and Lon Chaney, I can only speculate.)

Christopher Henley

It was the Hammer Horror of Dracula that introduced me to the Dracula story. That film (called simply Dracula when it opened in the UK) starred the twin peaks of Hammer, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who played, respectively, Van Helsing and Count D. I remember that version (which I haven’t seen in more than forty years) more vividly than the Bela Lugosi film or the most recent Francis Ford Coppola Bram Stokers Dracula.

I have since seen many other versions, which brought out different aspects of the Dracula myth. There was the Edward Gorey-designed stage version, which ran on Broadway in the late 1970s. I saw its national tour, which played the Kennedy Center and featured one of my favorite actors, Raul Julia. I remember feeling as if he was a blood-curdling personification of pure malevolence, pure evil. When the stage version’s original lead, Frank Langella, did a film version with Lord Olivier as Van Helsing and a mesmerizing Kate Neligan as the female lead, her revelatory performance cast the story as a particularly Victorian myth, as a way of explaining the transformative effects of romantic passion. When she spoke of the force of being transfixed by the Count, she could have been any Victorian or Edwardian heroine whose friends don’t recognize her after she has fallen deeply in love. (As Irene in The Forsyte Saga says to her devastated best friend, “A woman doesn’t have friends. She has a lover. Other people, she just happens to have met.” That kind of personality change is hard to explain; maybe she’s been bitten in the neck.)

A stylish British TV version was shown on PBS in the 1970s with Louis Jourdan in the lead, and it took a startlingly Freudian take, wherein the vampire was like a mysterious creature that inhabited dreams. And then there was the wonderful Andy Warhols Dracula with Udo Keir. It must be seen to be believed, as the Count pukes up the blood he has sucked from the putative but not actual virgin daughters of an aristocrat, and for the climax, during which an actual (and appallingly young) virgin daughter is pursued not only by the Count, but also by the hunky farmhand Joe Dellasandro, desperate to fuck her in order to save her.

There were always vampires in film other than Dracula. There was The Hunger, with Catharine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon (the Lucy-Mina relationship in our version has echoes of that wonderful, stylish film) and there’s the terrific George A. Romero film Martin, about a contemporary (in the 1980s) kid — is he really a vampire, or does he just think he is? And my generation was smitten with the TV movie The Night Stalker starring Darren McGavin, whose reporter and accidental vampire hunter Kolchak spun off into his own series.

Since the Coppola version, however, the Count himself has receded and been replaced by a successor generation of vampires that seem to have eclipsed Dracula (who our playwright Tim Treanor refers to as the “proto vampire”). There’s True Blood and Twilight, of course, and, a bit earlier, From Dawn to Dusk and Blade.

It’s been fun recently to see some of those old episodes on Netflix and to be reminded of how under-rehearsed it was, how flimsy the sets were, and how many wonderful New York actors showed up in the cast. (Don’t get me started on that appalling joke of a Johnny Depp movie that turned my fondly remembered favorite show into a campy string of tired gags. At the height of the series’ popularity, though, they did a self-contained film version, called House of Dark Shadows, which is almost never shown, in which Barnabas is not at all sympathetic, and which follows a traditional vampire story arc.)

With this history, then, what drew me to Treanor’s script? What could there possibly be left to mine from the myth?

That’s a hard question to answer, not because I don’t know the answer, but because the answer is part of the surprise that awaits our audience. However, let me tease a bit of what makes this version distinct and fresh.

We all know that Dracula has a historical antecedent, Vlad the Impaler. In this version, however, Bram Stoker (the author of the novel Dracula) is also a historical antecedent, as the play integrates the novel and the literary character into the fabric of the historical precedent and Stoker is presented not as writer of fiction but as reporter of fact.

The play contextualizes the Dracula myth into the modern world in a fascinating way. The Van Helsing analogue (in this version, a woman) is able to put the vampire myth into the context of non-Western, non-industrialized cultures. Suddenly, the fantastical aspects of the vampire myth feel less impossible and, wonderfully, more credible. Also, I love how Treanor’s Count challenges the human characters by pointing out the ways in which they erect pretensions and employ avoidance around their own animal behaviors. And it’s a play that has wit without descending into dismissive camp.

It also gives the ingenue role, Lucy, a more-distinct-than-usual hook into the Count. The subtitle is “A Love Story,” after all. How interesting when there is a basis to the chief relationship that makes sense beyond just the pull of the vampire’s magnetic power?

I’m not going to be a spoiler, of course, but the resolution of this version takes the story in a direction that I have never experienced in any of the versions I’ve seen, and which, for me, has a very satisfying emotional wallop. It also underlines another aspect of the vampire myth. The human’s knowledge of impending death has always triggered a fascination with the concept of immortality or eternal youth. The legend of the vampire on one level is potent in that it associates immortality with the loss of the essence of one’s humanity.

My husband and co-director Jay Hardee and I are so fortunate in so many ways, not the least of which  is the quality of talent we have been able to attract to our Fringe production.

The names speak for themselves. In the cast we have Joe Brack, Brian Crane, Carolyn Kashner, Lynn Sharp Spears, Christine Hirrel, Josh Speerstra, and (in the title role) Lee Ordeman; on the design team, Neil McFadden and Colin Dieck. We’ve all worked together before, in varying combinations.

Who was it who said that 80% of directing is casting well? Whoever that was is jealous of our team.

I’ll end with a line from the play. When our Vlad is asked what is wrong with his invalid wife Mina, he replies, “She’s dying, Lucy. Just like the rest of us.” I love that line, which I think has implications about the enduring appeal of the myth of the vampire.

 Dracula . A Love Story is onstage at Mountain – 900 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC

Performances are: July 12 at 3:45pm, July 18 at 10:30pm, July 20 at 6:15pm,
July 24 at 8:15pm and July 26 at 10:45pm
Details and tickets or call 866-811-4111.

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