The stress is beginning to creep up on them.
And yet these actors don’t seem particularly scared, just exhausted. They’ve just finished their warm-ups — preparation for the upcoming, physically demanding final fight scene. And the five weeks of intense rehearsal they’ve already put in — not to mention the compounding grind of their day jobs — is starting to wear on them.
This same cast will soon perform the world debut of Highland Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Right now, however, they’ve got a serious, collective case of the grumps.
Many are still flubbing their lines, and some of the blocking for the play remains unclear, while the grand platforms of the final set are simply implied by bright-yellow ropes stuck with tiny strips of electrical tape to the Pack Place Forum’s tile floor.
It’s obviously frustrating for all involved. But things are coming together — slowly.
From Murnau’s loosely adapted silent masterpiece Nosferatu to Lugosi’s career-defining take on the Count, most of us know Stoker’s classic vampire only through his existence on film. On the whole, these adaptations have seriously altered how we look at Stoker’s novel, changing many of the story’s basic elements to suit Hollywood whims. Even Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed 1992 version, the star-studded blockbuster Bram Stoker’s Dracula, took great liberties with the tale, turning Dracula into a tragic, haunted lover rather than a force of raw evil.
But for all the bloodletting the movies have inflicted on Dracula, the theater world has done worse. Attempting to shape the story to stage, most companies drive the stake of pop culture straight through Dracula’s literary heart.
Just ask Jeff Douglas Messer, who co-wrote Highland Rep’s adaptation (along with the show’s director, Andrew Gall) out of pure frustration.
A perilous decision
“Highland Rep was seriously considering producing a version of Dracula,” remembers Messer, having now moved, along with the rest of the cast, from the Forum to Pack Place’s carpeted lobby. “Andrew said they had a stack of different Dracula plays that they were looking at, and then he said that most of them — not to overuse the pun — sucked.
“Most of the play versions that have been done take huge liberties with the book,” explains Messer. For instance, there’s one such script’s recasting of Dr. Van Helsing as a woman, or the reinterpretation in another of Dracula’s insane servant, Renfield, as a tragic hero (in the musical adaptation Possessed).
A few years earlier, Messer had co-written a version of the Robin Hood legend, which enjoyed a successful run at Waynesville’s Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre. So he and Gall decided to take on Dracula.
A few weeks into the project, however, both began to wonder what they’d stumbled into.
“Both of us started re-reading the book, and realized what a terrible, terrible mistake we had made,” jokes Messer. “The book doesn’t lend itself to theater easily. It’s told in letters and journals, and it’s all in first-person narrative — not at all dialogue-based.”
Structural problems also loomed. After all, the thing that makes Count Dracula truly frightening isn’t his cinematic fangs but his murky veil of mystery. In the book, he’s as much a creature of shadows and fog as he is of flesh and bone. His evil doesn’t come from the mere slaughter of innocents, but rather because everything he touches — from his barren home in Transylvania to the tortured souls of his victims — becomes tainted, corrupt.
The dark challenge of staging Dracula led Messer and Gall to a potentially perilous decision: They chose to restructure the play around the character of Mina Harker, the wife of tortured barrister Jonathan Harker, who’s hired to secure the Count’s property in England. Obviously, this was going to require tampering with the source material — the very tactic the two had hoped to avoid.
“We had to take a lot of the text in the book, and rearrange it,” Messer admits. “If the audience is watching the story through Mina’s eyes, then they can’t know about events until she does.”
An even bolder decision was to have Dracula be rarely seen till the play’s second half — though his trail of grim deeds is sensed at every turn, embodied in the black cloak that envelopes a desperate ship’s captain, for instance, or in the ominous figure who co-narrates Jonathan’s letters to Mina in bellowing Romanian.
When Dracula does show up, he’s a creature of poise and majesty. He is dark purpose personified.
In fact, even when the Count walks out of the rehearsal room at Pack Place, he takes his presence with him.
Local Dracula Jeff Bachar stretches his arms and tries to summon the energy he’ll need for the full run-through that’s just moments away. Bachar is an amiable guy, and in casual conversation, it’s hard to imagine him turning back into a terrible monster.
Until he yawns.
For the past few weeks, Bachar has been wearing a set of specially made dental caps that include two long, gleaming fangs.
“I’ve had to get used to them,” Bachar explains jovially. “The words are a little different with the teeth in.”
Though he admits playing Dracula is intimidating (Bachar cites Jack Palance and Christopher Lee as some of the more powerful interpreters of the Count), the local actor also views Highland Rep’s version of the vampire as more of a supporting character than a star turn.
“The way this adaptation is written, it’s very much an ensemble piece,” says Bachar.
Indeed. Filing back into the Forum after the break, the rest of the cast still looks tired — almost drained of life.
Highland Repertory Theatre’s world-premier production of Dracula opens Thursday, Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. at Diana Wortham Theatre. The production runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., through Oct. 25. Thursday-night tickets cost $10/all seats; Friday- and Saturday-night tickets cost $20/adults, $18/students and seniors. For tickets and information, call the DWT box office at 257-4530, or visit highlandrep.org.