Classic Stage Company, Lynn F. Angelson Theater
136 East 13th St. between Third & Fourth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 15, $82-$127
In 1971, Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein movie pit the Transylvanian count against the lab-created Creature, both introduced to film audiences in 1931 in separate horror films that started long-running franchises. The pair of ghouls, along with the Wolf Man, also appeared together in Charles Barton’s 1948 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. And now Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster are not face-to-face but back-to-back in Classic Stage’s creepy double feature, new adaptations of each running in repertory through March 15.
Kate Hamill, whose previous literary adaptations include wonderfully imaginative versions of Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Vanity Fair, has had a helluva lotta fun with Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel. She calls it “a bit of a feminist revenge fantasy, really,” infusing it with a healthy dose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a somewhat Marxist view of class struggle while keeping the plot firmly in the bloodline of the original.
Dracula (Matthew Amendt) is put in the background of this version; in fact, all the men are secondary to the women. Hamill’s great invention is gender-switching the characters, beginning with the mad Renfield (Hamill) and most spectacularly with the vampire hunter Van Helsing (Jessica Frances Dukes); the first is now a husband-murdering woman in a lunatic asylum, the second a powerful, leather-clad female punk cowboy (think Faith from Buffy and Angel). The plot proceeds mostly according to Stoker, with a few condensations and sly alterations: Renfield is cared for by the boringly plain Doctor George Seward (Matthew Saldivar), who’s engaged to the mischievous Lucy Westenra (Jamie Ann Romero), whose BFF is the pregnant Mina Harker (Kelley Curran). Mina’s husband, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Michael Crane), has gone to Transylvania on business. The conversation sounds contemporary from the outset, albeit couched in semi-Victorian diction as when Lucy teases Mina that Jonathan probably has “some Bavarian hausfrau. Some Slovakian slattern. Some Czech chippy” there. “I cannot blame him, Mina. You have gone rather to seed,” Lucy says, poking at Mina’s belly. “That’s the baby, you cow,” Mina responds. “Excuses, excuses,” Lucy says. Mina: “I’ll remind you how amusing that is when you are in the same condition.” Lucy: “One step at a time, please.” Mina: “It happens faster than you think. One day, you’re a schoolgirl, the next —” Lucy: “A hideous bloated old broodmare —” Mina: “— condemned to a life with no greater excitement than visiting a horrible little trollop on the seaside!”
Dracula is essentially a minor character, dressed in white instead of the traditional black (the costumes are by Robert Perdziola), not as demonic as he is often depicted; rather, his strength is frankly sexual and class-based. He is protected by two henchwomen, the lustful vampires Drusilla (Laura Baranik), named after a Buffy character, and Marilla (Lori Laing), perhaps named after the spinster from Anne of Green Gables. As Dracula slowly turns Mina into the walking dead, Dr. Seward refuses to believe in any such nefarious doings, and intrepid vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing arrives on the scene, ready to fight, quickly winning the formerly meek Mina to her side as they team up to rescue Jonathan and kill the count.
Directed by Sarna Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Little Women), this Dracula is a bit scattershot, all over the place as it investigates feminist themes from the Victorian era to today, as well as the emergence of working- and middle-class power versus the landed aristocracy. Renfield is a woman dealing with daddy issues, projecting her lust and religious zeal onto the unavailable Dracula, while the heroes are Mina, a twist on Buffy sweetly played by Curran (The Winter’s Tale, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore), and Dr. Van Helsing, portrayed with fearless panache by Dukes (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Yellowman). Classic Stage artistic director John Doyle’s sparse set is often empty except for when beds are rolled onstage, keeping the focus on the characters themselves.
Hamill’s sense of humor shines through as she toys with genre conventions across two hours and twenty minutes with intermission. When Jonathan first meets the count upon arriving at Dracula’s deserted mansion, he says, “I was beginning to think there wasn’t a soul in the place!” This Dracula also is more aware of class warfare than usual, telling Jonathan, “If control is shifting to the masses, than I must be of the masses. I must not rule from the castle on the hill anymore. Instead, I must become a common man, anonymous; — welcomed everywhere, and remembered nowhere. A man — rather — like you.” It’s a battle of the sexes in which men, whether supernatural or human, don’t stand a chance.
Tristan Bernays is far more faithful to the original story in his stark adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s anonymously published 1818 epistolary novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The streamlined production features two actors, Stephanie Berry as Victor Frankenstein and the Creature, and Rob Morrison singing songs, playing guitar, contributing sound effects, narrating sections, and moving around the furniture, which includes a long table, a large mirror, and several small pails. (This set also is designed by Doyle.) As with Hamill’s Dracula, Bernays’s Frankenstein plays with gender identity as it explores issues of God versus man as creator. Shortly after being brought to life, the Creature starts learning language and finding its place in the world, like a child quickly growing into adulthood. But the more it understands, the less it likes.
The narration is taken directly from the source material, with added dialogue. “What if — What if I failed to speak to him in gentle tongue? What if though blind he sensed withal my horrid shape? What if his children came back swift and ruined all my plans? What if — What if —” the Creature says as he enters the home where a blind man lives. Shortly after leaving the house, the Creature looks up at the stars and screams out, “Why? Why did you mould me but for misery? Am I to never feel a friendly touch? A kindly look? Love? Compassion? Why did you make me so? Why?” The Creature ultimately confronts Dr. Frankenstein, his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, William, and declares his need for a companion, leading to a tragic conclusion.
Even at a mere eighty minutes, the play, directed by Timothy Douglas (Radio Golf, Etiquette of Vigilance), drags on. The scenes don’t flow easily into one another, feeling ragged and disjointed. Berry (Gem of the Ocean, For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad) has some fine moments as the Creature, but the story and pace can get confusing, while Morrison (Avenue Q, Nevermore), clearly an excellent musician, seems mostly unnecessary. It ends up being more of a curiosity, which is not enough to sustain it, whether seen as a Gothic tale or a contemporary parable.