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Theatre Reviews Review: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s tale of foreign biters, taxes at Shaw Festival

Above, Cherissa Richards and Allan Louis star as Lucy Westerman and Dracula in Liz Lochhead’s production of the classic Bram Stoker tale.

David Cooper

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Dracula
Written by
Bram Stoker, Adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead
Directed by
Eda Holmes
Actors
Allan Louis
Venue
Shaw Festival
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Saturday, October 14, 2017

What a chillingly prescient argument for the foreign-buyers tax is Dracula – currently appearing on the main stage at the Shaw Festival.

Scottish poet Liz Lochhead's adaptation of Bram Stoker's enduring tale of terror in the real estate market begins when a rich count from a faraway land where they speak funny arranges to purchase a house next to a mental-health facility in London, no doubt outbidding a young couple struggling to get a foot on the property ladder in an affordable neighbourhood.

But gentrification is only the first horror this Dracula has on his mind.

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Solicitor Jonathan Harker (Ben Sanders) is sent to seal the deal with the count in Transylvania, where he becomes prisoner to the polygamist plutocrat and his screeching, anemic wives – a fate perhaps you've wished on a real estate financing professional yourself at some point, but one that is not so funny when you actually see it acted out.

Dracula's behaviour only becomes worse when he does move to British soil and makes no attempt to assimilate whatsoever – importing a number of unhealthy and anti-female customs that would surely merit a phone call to the vampiric cultural practices hotline.

For instance, Mina (Marla McLean), the fiancée of Harker, and Lucy (a lively Cherissa Richards), her sister, are subject to a series of Dracula's sexist bat-calls – harassing visits at night by winged mammals that could very well be a metaphor for how women are treated on Twitter every day.

Likewise, Renfield (Graeme Somerville), Dracula's new neighbour in Lucy's fiancée's psychiatric facility, is driven to recite increasingly bad beat poetry while moving his hands around like Madonna in the video for Frozen.

Actually, I'm not entirely how how Renfield fits into this thesis – but the overall point is crystal clear: Foreign biters, stay away! Well, that's one possibility of what this Dracula means anyway. There's plenty of time to find your own coded meanings in director Eda Holmes's production – because it is otherwise a rather tedious affair.

Lochhead's adaptation is a very serious piece of writing – and Holmes's production, given a beautiful but somewhat sterile design by Michael Gianfrancesco, follows suit with the solemnity.

You can see why an artistic director might find this 1985 adaptation of Dracula appealing on the page.

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It's a female-forward version that begins with Mina and Lucy putting on corsets in a garden and bringing to the surface the novel's thematic concerns about the New Woman (and how one might easily be seduced by foreigners with eccentric dental practices).

Lochhead has also inserted class issues into Dracula by inventing a maid for the sisters named Florrie (Natasha Mumba). She's there to remind you of the existence of the working class at every given opportunity, lest you get too carried away for a moment by fantasy or adventure and forget there were some people who didn't have the time to be seduced and killed by vampires in Victorian England, or the money to hunt vampires on the continent until the advent of low-cost, short-haul airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet.

But therein lies the problem with Lochhead's adaptation on the stage – it's full of additions and amendments that put the politics in the right place (except for that pesky xenophobia), but also act as speed bumps for a narrative that should be at least a little fun and exciting.

Which is too bad, because Shaw has an exceptionally entertaining Dracula in the form of Allan Louis. He brings the show briefly to life with his grand manners and dry delivery of lines in the first act – before unfortunately being forced to run around casting shadows on sheets and hissing for the rest of the show.

A couple of the nurses who work with psychiatrist Dr. Seward (Martin Happer) are also played very amusingly by Moya O'Connell and Chick Reid – but, alas, are also entirely superfluous to the plot.

The actors at the centre of the action – Happer, McLean and Sanders – seem to have been instructed to not give interesting performances in any way, perhaps in a misguided bid to avoid camp.

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Putting aside my real-estate reading for a moment, Lochhead seems to actually intend her adaptation of Dracula to be about sexual desire, the complicated places it can take you – and the need for forgiveness and understanding for this side of what makes us human. In this, it reminds of Oscar Wilde's melodramas such as Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, the latter of which Holmes directed at Shaw last season.

This is a fascinating take, because some scholars have read Stoker's 1897 novel as exactly the opposite, a book that feeds on the anxiety created by Wilde's trial two years earlier for gross indecency and fears of homosexuality.

Dracula does indeed endure because of all the possible meanings people have found in it or projected onto it – and the myriad ways in which vampires can be metaphors. But, for a stage version to truly succeed, Stoker's story needs to have bite, not just give you something to chew over.

Dracula continues at the Festival Theatre to Oct. 14 (shawfest.com).

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