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Dracula at Sonoma Community Center – REVIEW by Harry Duke

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Dracula at Sonoma Community Center
REVIEW by Harry Duke

With the proliferation of glittering vampires, studly werewolves and speedy zombies in modern media, how does a play written in 1924, revised in 1927 and based on a novel published in 1897 play in 2014? The answer is… surprisingly well if the current production of “Dracula” running at the Sonoma Community Center is any indication. Silver Moon Theatre’s Nellie Cravens has taken a straightforward and faithful approach to the source material, and it works.

If your familiarity with the piece is based solely on the multiple Hollywood takes on the Bram Stoker original, you’ll probably be surprised to see the action compressed to several hours from evening to morning and the location fixed to several rooms of a sanatorium. There are also fewer characters involved.

Dr. Seward (Dan Monez) has summoned his old friend Dr. Van Helsing (Matt Witthaus) to consult on an illness striking his daughter (Courtney Bristow). With support from Lucy’s fiancé, John Harker (Michael Miller), Seward agrees to follow Van Helsing’s direction in hunting down the source of Lucy’s illness, which may involve the new occupant of nearby Carfax Abbey – a certain Count (Len Handeland).

Dan Monez, Michael Hunter, Matt Witthaus, Michael MillerThe figure of Count Dracula had been memorably played on stage and screen by such actors as Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman. Handeland wisely avoids any trace of those iconic performances (and a thick Hungarian accent) and makes Count Dracula his own.  He gives the character the appropriate amounts of initial continental charm and subsequent malevolence. Dan Monez brings authority, earnest concern and a sense of thoughtful bewilderment with the situation to his role as Lucy’s father, Dr. Seward. Matt Witthaus makes for an intense Van Helsing, though perhaps just a tad bit too intense at times. What works on a large stage or behind a proscenium arch may be a bit overpowering when delivered from the thick of a house. Then again, if you go around pounding wooden stakes into things’ hearts, you may act a bit intensely yourself.

Matt Witthaus, Courtney BristowThe young lovers are played by relative acting newcomers Michael Miller and Courtney Bristow. Miller is fine as the suitor, full of British reserve and young gumption. Ms. Bristow’s lack of theatrical experience shows through halting line delivery and a frequently disappearing accent, but give her credit for taking on a very different type of role than those usually available to younger performers and for taking the stage with veteran actors.

Michael Hunter goes from being a cracked egg in “Alice: The Rebellion in Wonderland” to just plain cracked as William Renfield, resident Sanatorium fly-eater and Dracula’s minion. Hunter has fun with the bi/tri/quadri-polar character and when he's not forcefully expressing deep psychological anguish, he is actually able to provide some necessary comic relief, along with George Bereschik as Butterworth, the long-suffering attendant. Susan Lee completes the ensemble as servant Alice Wells.

On the technical side, Hughe Byrnes’ rich scenic design spills from the stage down into the house and makes creative use of the space. In Andrews Hall, the audience usually sits facing the stage. Because of the use of the auditorium floor as a part of the set, 2/3 of the audience seating has been moved to each side and facing in. The portion of the audience seating on risers remains and is the preferred place from which to watch this show.

Sound design by Aldo Mosca is also effective, whether it be the background music of Franz Schubert or the frequent baying of a wolf. Jon Gourdine’s lighting design adds some nice touches, and costumes by Linda Rawls are period and appropriate. The Count’s evening wear (especially his cape) is particularly good-looking.

Len HandelandThe show utilizes a few special effects, and most of them work. One does not. I guess you should expect a bat to make an appearance at some point in this play, and it does. Well, it tries. At the performance I attended, the bat (which is supposed to fly over the heads of the cast and audience) got stuck behind the set for a while, and then when it was “released” elicited more giggles than anything. Kudos to the actors for a keeping straight faces throughout. I think a much more effective approach might have been through the use of shadow rather than a stuffed, winged chihuahua with red lights for eyeballs (which is what it looked like to me). This was the one moment when the show risked veering into camp. The cast’s steadfastness through the scene limited the damage, and the show proceeded with other, more successful special effects augmenting the drama.

I’ll admit, I had my doubts as to whether a traditional production of this play could still be relevant or, more importantly, entertaining in today’s day and age. Silver Moon Theatre’s production of “Dracula” proves that with strong direction, a committed cast, and creative design elements that it can be.  Their efforts succeeded in transporting me to another time and place.  Fans of modern vampire drama should take note and consider attending. This is where it all began. Fans of good community theatre should take note and consider attending. This is how it's done.

"Dracula"

Presented by Silver Moon Theatre in Association with the Sonoma Theatre Alliance

through November 2

Thu, Fri, Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm

Sonoma Community Center
276 E Napa St
Sonoma, CA 95476

(707) 938-4626 ext 1

www.sonomacommunitycenter.org

Photos by Adrian R. Hyman

Theater Reviews by Harry Duke