Last weekend was an impromptu Steven Dietz festival for me. First I saw his adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: “Sherlock Holmes: the Final Adventure” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre downtown last Friday night. Then last Saturday night I met my brother at the Asylum House in Greenwood on the south side of Indy to see Artbox Productions’ presentation of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which was also written by Steven Dietz.
I had not heard of Steven Dietz before last weekend, but any playwright who makes me want to read the books on which his plays are based is okay by me. In other words, I am now a Steven Dietz fan.
I am a fan of the newly formed ArtBox Productions, too. This community theatre company was established by two men, Jason Hignite and Ryan Reddick. Hignite told me that they hope to provide a venue for new plays. However, they decided to go with an established script by a proven playwright for this, their first production.
Hignite directed “Dracula.” Reddick produced it.
It is tough for a new theatre to get started. Not only are the founders busy figuring out how to make art now that they have both full control and full responsibility, but they also don’t have an established audience base to support them when the art is ready to be enjoyed.
One sign that a new theatre company has staying power is that its leaders have commitments beyond the first show. Hignite told me that they have an agreement with the Asylum House to do a horror show every September as a prelude to the annual opening of the haunted house attraction. He relishes the fact that within the horror story genre there are all kinds of possibilities. He and Reddick have already started working on their own adaptation of “Frankenstein” for next year.
But what about this year’s show?
Well, my brother and I enjoyed it very much. I invited him because although he reads widely, I know he is a fan of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. For a while a few years ago, he and his friends met weekly to play a role-playing game called “The Call of Cuthulu.” I thought he might enjoy something based on Bram Stoker as well.
Since we had a good time this year, I would love it if meeting in Greenwood, which is about halfway between our two homes, for the ArtBox show every fall becomes one of our sib-trads. (Sibling traditions.)
This year, there is a huge sign with day-glo letters on wheels at the entrance to German Park. Once inside the park, you drive past the big outdoor shelter and then it gets a little confusing. Fortunately, when we went, there was another big event going on at the same time, so a parking attendant pointed the way with his flashlight to the Asylum House. It looks like a big, nondescript warehouse. The attendant told me, “Don’t worry, it looks better on the inside.”
And it does! Patrick Greathouse designed the awesome set and props. Phil Yeary painted it. And by “awesome” I mean that I felt awe when I looked at the set. You sit on folding metal chairs, but you feel as if you are inside a creepy old castle complete with dungeon cell and gargoyle-guarded balcony. Off to one side, a gory skeleton has tied itself to a ship’s wheel with a rosary.
Before my brother arrived, a man with silvery, dagger-like claws and a fur stole over his suit came up to me and said, “Hello, beautiful!”
I said, “YOU look beautiful!” and pointed to his elaborate makeup and costume.
“Yes,” he said. “Everyone wants to get inside my clothes to see what’s longer than my fangs.”
He told us later that “they call me Spooky Brucey and I do the ‘Super Shock Show.’ I am the raging tramp that haunts bad movies. I have a DVD coming out soon.” Before you click on his MySpace page, you should know that it takes forever to load and you might not feel comfortable viewing it on a public computer. However, it is rich with campy-trampy humor and images. Spooky Brucey’s pre-show shtick at “Dracula” added another fun, and unexpected, layer to the production.
The show itself has some funny moments, but I loved that it mostly made me think of the original, disturbing novel.
It is 1897. Sweet and prim Mina (played by Allison Reddick, who is also the production assistant) is the symbol of all that is pure and holy in women. She is in chaste love with her handsome and upstanding fiancé, Jonathan Harker (Mark Meyer), who is away in Transylvania on business.
Mina’s saucy friend, Lucy (Mindy Steele), is toying with the affections of three suitors, including a somewhat callous man named Seward (Terrence Dellinger), who runs a lunatic asylum. He hopes to keep his inmates insane so that he can study them. However, he does seem to truly love Lucy, and wants to marry her.
One of Seward’s patients is a fascinating creature named Renfield, played by Jeffery Sanford. Sanford gives Renfield a thick accent that is a clever and consistent mixture of Cockney English and physical handicap. It is so thick that sometimes I couldn’t understand each word, but I could usually get the gist. The incomprehensibility of his speech made his lucid howls and laughter all the more frightening.
Renfield warns that his master is coming, but no one except the audience makes the connection between Renfield’s ramblings and the marks that appear on Lucy’s neck or her sudden and unexplainable illness. With the tortured help of Jonathan Harker, the evil Count Dracula has indeed arrived in England.
Experienced actor Joshua Ramsey stars in the title role and grounds the whole production. From his bat-like appearance on the balcony to his wolf-like pursuit of his victims, he wields a power that is beyond sexy. We see his transformation from a worn-out husk in his native Transylvania through his methodical mimicry and draining of Harker’s English essence to his vibrant re-birth in a new-to-him country that is filled with fresh blood.
The innocent but titillating physical affection between the two young women, Lucy and Mina, in their lovely peignoirs offers an interesting contrast to the unfettered and hissing sexuality of the two Vixens (Samantha Miller and Kristina Harris) that “live” with Dracula. Their breasts spill out of their bodices and blood spills out of their mouths. (Costumes by Ashley Jackson and Kate Smiley. F/X makeup design by Don Trent.)
At one point, just like in the book, the two Vixens gobble a baby that Dracula has offered them to keep them from devouring the captive Harker. They and Dracula have strong needs, but love is not one of them.
Meanwhile, as Lucy’s mysterious condition worsens, Seward in desperation calls in a favor from a famous doctor named Van Helsing, played by Brad Potts. Van Helsing encourages blood transfusions. The sight of the Victorian rubber tubing and pump mechanism was realistic enough to make me squeamish.
Potts, like Sanford, gives his character an admirably thick accent. However, Van Helsing’s Dutch accent is easier to understand, and amusingly wetter for the people standing near him.
In fact, although there is no dialect coach listed in the program, all of the characters have admirable accents. I confess that I am a sucker (okay, I couldn’t resist one pun in this review!) for just about any variety of English accent.
I also enjoyed the fact that although the cast is a mixture of community theatre veterans and newcomers, I couldn’t tell which was which until I looked at the program (by Laura Bennington) or unless I already knew their work from previous shows. The three Attendants, for example, played by Steve Smiley, Whitney Eaker, and Tom Knox, have varying levels of experience but all fulfill their essential small parts well in this show. This was not only the first role for Sara Smith (Maid), but her first audition. I hope she continues to participate in community theatre!
Speaking of community theatre, Spotlight Players director and board member Jim LaMonte designed the lighting for this show. Jason Hignite told me that Spotlight might be willing to host an ArtBox production after things have settled down in the new Spotlight theatre space in Beech Grove. In the meantime, I especially loved the rectangular blocks of light in this show that illuminated selected parts of the long and large stage in order to help the audience understand where we were at any given time, while at the same time added to the overall macabre mood of the piece. Jeremy Gray is the board operator.
The sound design for “Dracula” is by producer and company co-founder Ryan Reddick. The music that introduces the piece is fresh and perfect: semi-friendly and semi-sinister. Several other times in the show, too, the music is well suited to the action of the play. Other times, however, the music is a distraction rather than an enhancement. Sometimes it made me wonder if I was hearing sound bleed from another event, which took me out of the story.
I saw a sign at the concession stand that the music itself is for sale at the show on CD. I meant to go and look at the CD(s) at intermission but forgot. (Drat!) However, the program has ads for two groups: “Gathering of Darkness” with a CD called “The Summoning,” and “Retic” with two CDs called “Saturn Day Trajectory” and “Color is a Weird Word.”
Jeremy Gray is the stage manager. There is a lot to manage in this show. I especially admired the crew’s handling of the crypt.
When we came out of the building, there was a hearse parked next to the door. Yikes!
There are two more chances to see ArtBox Productions’ “Dracula.” Tonight’s show is at 8:00, with the pre-show beginning at 7:30. The final performance will be at 6:30 tomorrow evening (Sunday, September 28, 2008.) The information number for ArtBox Productions is 317-985-3364. However, ArtBox is not yet set up to take reservations by phone and they do not yet have their own website. The only way to get advance tickets is to buy them online via the Asylum House. Also, there are only three rows of seats. However, I bet you will be able to get in if you just show up, especially if you show up a little early. They can probably legally squeeze in more chairs if needed.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com