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Fear Factor GCUs Production of Dracula Has It

October 25, 2011

 By Doug Carroll

Communications Staff
Photos by James West

Poor Dracula.

In popular culture, the old blood-sucking count has been the Rodney Dangerfield of horror, rarely being accorded proper respect. From the Grandpa character on "The Munsters" TV show to Count Chocula breakfast cereal, it has been difficult to take the guy seriously. It's as if he changed his address from Transylvania to your neighborhood Party City costume store.

Give credit, then, to the Ethington Theatre Series and director Michael Kary for going all-out to restore Dracula to his rightful place as a hair-raising Gothic terrorist.

Those who packed the theatre over the weekend expecting a campy stage version ofBram Stoker's 1897 novel experienced something else entirely: an armrest-gripping thriller that's easily the most serious, ambitious work the GCU theatre program has done since returning last fall from a four-year hiatus.|

"Dracula," using American playwright Steven Dietz's true-to-Stoker script written in 1996, unifies Assistant Dean Bill Symington's staging, Dean Claude Pensis' lighting and Nola Yergen's costuming as never before. Even more remarkable is this: Five of the seven main characters in Friday's opening-night performance were new to the Ethington stage - including three freshmen. From their polish and poise, you'd never know it.

Most of us have at least a casual familiarity with the story of the count, a vampire who requires fresh human blood to refresh and renew himself. He does his best work at night; he is repulsed by garlic, crucifixes and sacramental bread (plenty of deep meaning there); he has a variety of supernatural abilities; and he needs to be near Transylvanian soil in order to rest, thus complicating a voyage to London.

Lucy Westenra (played by Ashley Hines) and Mina Murray (Sandra Harris) become ensnared by the wiles of the count (Micah DeShazer). Caught in the middle, trying to save the women they love from eternal evil, are Dr. John Seward (Nathan de Laet) and Jonathan Harker (Austin Hildebrandt). Both men lean on the counsel of Seward's former professor, Abraham Van Helsing (Josh VanderPoel), who has a plan to defeat Dracula.

This is theatre that makes us think about the very real presence of evil in the world and, yes, in each of us. As we are told in the play, "In life, (Dracula) was a man of the utmost virtue. The terror of it is ... that this evil grows richest in a soul most pure."

Dietz's script moves quickly, in almost cinematic style, employing rapid scene changes and some flashbacks. It can be difficult to follow, critics have noted over the years, but that matters far less than the mood - which is where the Ethington production scores an unqualified triumph.

Symington's angular, industrial-looking set is given a spooky, amber glow by Pensis' lighting and enhanced by occasional rolling fog, so that when the count is seen lurking in the shadows, there is a palpable sense of danger - without a word being spoken.

DeShazer, a freshman, does a magnificent job of capturing Dracula's brooding, haunting presence. When the count says, "I only wish to study you, to learn the curve of your neck," it's not funny (and no one laughed). He means business, and DeShazer's measured, dispassionate tone underscores it.

De Laet's growth as an actor is evident in a fine portrayal of the tortured Seward, who agonizingly tells his Lucy, "It's not your beauty that has gone - it is your soul." Although de Laet, a sophomore, has done well in several roles at GCU, this is his best work yet.

VanderPoel's mastery of the role of Van Helsing is extraordinary for a freshman and elevates the play's second act. (He is sharing the role with Bina Neuwirth; each is scheduled to perform three times during the six-show run.) And Zach Hendershott brings comic relief to the role of Renfield, an insane-asylum patient of Seward's who has been driven even nuttier by the mind games of Dracula, whom he calls "Master."

"A fear once rooted in your head is forever," Renfield tells the audience in a short closing monologue. "Sweet dreams."

The final three performances of "Dracula" will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 639.8880 for tickets. Because of its themes, the play is not recommended for children younger than 12.