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Dracula — Hedgerow Theatre

dracula -- interiorHow wonderful to attend a classic play that could be done as a “39 Steps-like” comedy and see it taken seriously!

In addition to praising Hedgerow and director Dan Hodge for maintaining a straightforward Gothic approach to “Dracula,” I express gratitude that, for one blessed time, a favored work was allowed to reach audiences on its own terms and prove why it enjoys its longevity instead of being reworked into a farce that denies its dramatic essence.

Hodge’s “Dracula” works in darkness, shadows, and orange light. It depicts the horror occurring in the Seward home near London, making you care about the fate of the Seward daughter, Lucy, and the eternity of her unlucky friend, Mina. It allows J Hernandez’s Count to show how charming he can be while never relinquishing a sense of how sinister and dangerous Dracula is. A scene in which Dracula mesmerizes and subjugates a Seward maid, played with proper fright and reluctant but inevitable submission by Meghan Winch, is especially effective as Hernandez shows both the luring characteristics and unnatural mental power of the canny vampire.

Hernandez has a knack for being simultaneously noble and reptilian. It’s an interesting talent that shows the actor’s facility to enchant while conveying traits that are tangibly repellant. His ability helps to keep his Dracula fascinatingly complex. You can’t predict his strategy every time he appears. He can be benign, preparing for his conquest and signaling his desire to ravage, yet assess a situation or condition that demands he wait, e.g. the arrival at the Sewards of Dr. van Helsing, the world’s foremost authority on paranormal beings, and follow his sharp instincts. As Dracula, who has been extant for 500 years and looks forward to 500 more, states, “I can be patient.” The tension in Hernandez’s performance is in the coinciding patience and impatience he expresses. His mastering of playing two conflicting emotions at once is admirable. He also has a way with some comedy John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane built into their play, for instance his answering all who say they did not hear him enter a room by sardonically intoning, “I have a light footfall.”

The Hedgerow “Dracula” does not scare you. There’s never a moment when you gasp or jolt in horror. It more takes the form of a mystery, a good one, in which the perpetrator’s methods and habits must be deduced so the harm he or she can inflict is rendered moot. Hernandez, Jennifer Summerfield as van Helsing, Allison Bloechl as Lucy, Ned Pryce as Lucy’s fiancĂ©, and Mark Swift as the pathetic Renfield all work to make Balderston and Deane’s mystery interesting and entertaining to watch. They, joined by Winch and John Lopes as Dr. Seward, a psychiatrist and head of an asylum for the insane, form a strong ensemble that captures the tone and urgency of “Dracula.” They don’t resign “Dracula” to being a familiar piece. They resist taking well-known and oft-parodied passages of the play for granted and give their characters and scenes definition so you can enjoy and be thoughtful and moved by what you know. In other words, they let the story unfold as if you might be seeing it for the time, a circumstance that might be true for people who only know the parodies and have never read Bram Stoker or seen the Balderston and Deane adaptation, the basis for both the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi and the 1979 version with Frank Langella. Yes, there’s an indulgence here and there, but it’s always done wittily and in keeping with Balderston and Deane’s material, an homage or nod to the familiar rather than a lampoon or pander. Some comedy is unintentional, but it is more the result of 90 years difference in sensibility since Balderston and Deane’s “Dracula” was first performed.

Hodge keeps everyone earnest. Bloechl and Pryce help in this because they make you believe in their romance and their mutual desire to refrain from harming the other by taking an unwise step, one that favors Dracula or places one of them under his spell. This is unusual in a production of “Dracula,” where Lucy, though the vampire’s primary target and victim, and Harker are often more functionary than fleshed out and given dimension. Even Swift’s Renfield, who, as a madman and one terrified of Dracula, has the most leeway to act out broadly, is played with a sense of doing enough, as opposed to going too far. The result is you worry about Lucy and want her protected, and all calamity prevented, instead of just viewing her as Dracula’s latest subject, and you take pity on Renfield because his torment and intellect are conveyed in spite of his mad behavior and wiliness. This approach makes the story more complete, so it doesn’t rely alone on van Helsing foiling Dracula before Lucy completely joins him as one of the night-prowling undead (as we know was Mina’s fate). Hodge has staged the entire range of Balderston and Deane’s play. His fine pacing and attention to subplots gives “Dracula” more texture and creates more relationship between the audience and the characters, especially the “good guys.”

The choice to cast a woman, Summerfield, as van Helsing has neutral effect. It shows the part is not suited to only one gender. It may even provide dividends, as there is some sexual tension between Summerfield’s van Helsing and Hernandez’s Dracula.

Of course that may be the result of having J Hernandez on stage. Besides being handsome and distinguished with his shoulder-length gray hair, Hernandez always gives his characters a smoldering quality. As in “Blood Wedding” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” there’s a hint of constantly brewing sexuality about Hernandez. You can see why Mina, Lucy, or van Helsing might be drawn to him no matter what they know or learn about Dracula. Hernandez also has a talent for making himself look large on a stage. You are surprised when you see him away from a set and realize how petite he is.

Hernandez’s Dracula is a wooer. You see that more with Winch’s maid that with Lucy, but a chemistry is created because Hernandez makes Dracula such an irresistible flirt. Balderston and Deane have already made him a witty conversationalist, especially good at making shrewd comebacks to leading questions from van Helsing, Harker, and Seward. Hernandez adds a slow, old-world style to the Count’s way with words so his unapologetically seductive vibes are bound to have an effect on the women in his proximity.

NealBoxHodge’s staging lets you appreciate Bram Stoker’s prowess as a storyteller and Balsderston and Deane’s talents as adaptors. The two men worked separately. Deane, who knew and consulted with Stoker, wrote the play for the London stage. Balderston, an American producer and actor, made approved changes to Deane’s script for “Dracula’s” 1929 Broadway debut with Lugosi. Tod Browning’s 1931 movie catapulted “Dracula” to the iconic status it has today.

Catching and knowing details shows intricacies that are often rushed through or pushed to the side. Renfield’s story becomes plainer and more integral. You pay more attention to Mina’s fate as London’s feared “woman in white.” You’re more attuned to Seward’s role as the keeper of an asylum. Van Hesling’s credentials and talents stand out more and command more respect. “Dracula” becomes more than a horror tale. It is a battle of science over the paranormal, a subject that would have been particularly appealing to readers in Stoker’s 19th century, and a story of love and support conquering stealthy invasion.

You can tell I enjoyed watching Hodge’s production unfold. It gave me the satisfaction of being entertained by the deft unfolding of a story rather than being sporadically amused by high points or in wait for the next instance of horror. I welcomed Bloechl and Pryce’s intimacy as Lucy and Harker as much as I looked forward to Hernandez’s next appearance as Dracula or to hearing van Helsing’s latest discovery and strategy.

Ned Pryce’s victory as Harker is taking a rather typical character and turning him from an incidental necessity, one half of a standard romantic pair to someone who shows genuine passion on Lucy’s behalf and is willing to play in integral part in Dracula’s capture and confront the Count himself. For once, when Harker insists to van Helsing that he be the one to drive the life-ending stake into Dracula’s heart, you see him as the worthy and logical choice for the job. Pryce shows you a sincere Harker who will lose even more than Seward if Lucy becomes another woman in white. His love for Bloechl’s Lucy comes through. He gives the effete gentleman engaged to Lucy some fire and heft. And he keeps his ardor within the confines of who Harker is. There’s a heroic stiff-upper-lip demeanor to Harker that makes his eventual anger and resolve more real and less impulsive or reckless.

Because of the way Allison Bloechl’s Lucy behaves with Harker, less like a Victorian lady than as a woman relaxing around the man she loves and is happy about marrying, we see Lucy in more dimension. She’s flesh and blood, as opposed to being solely blood, as she is to Dracula.

Or is she? One of the fine points of Hernandez’s performance is Dracula persuading you Lucy will be special among his brides and be more of a companion than a minion who walks the night causing mortal havoc. Bloechl, because she endows Lucy with a natural humanity and some humor, shows why both of her suitors would take an interest in her.

Mark Swift has a graceful agility as Harker. You understand how elusive Harker can be and why, beyond Dracula’s control of him, he can perform physical feats — climbing up walls, surviving perilous leaps — Harker is so successful as an escape artist. Swift’s physicality adds to the danger he poses to Renfield’s keepers. He is more adroit than madmen who act out from absence of control or discipline. He can articulate what he likes, and you always want to find out what he knows, how much he’s under the influence of Dracula, and whether, as Hodge’s production holds out the possibility he might, he will overcome his dread of Dracula and cooperate in the villain’s demise.

One of the reasons you can even consider such an event occurring is the trust Jennifer Summerfield inspires in van Helsing.

Van Helsing is the most difficult part in Balderston and Deane’s “Dracula.” Van Helsing is responsible for lots of exposition and theorizing. This can come out as static, or worse, comic, the doctor as a hypothesizing windbag who carries herbal banes, mirrors, and crucifixes among his — her — everyday tools. Even with a hint at a Viennese accent, Summerfield makes you listen to van Helsing and feels some curiosity about all he is saying, She never takes a pedantic tone. Her van Helsing animatedly tells Seward, Harker, and others what she know, but she never lets it be dry, academic, or without the sense that van Helsing is sharing the benefit of his lifelong studies and not lecturing. While there’s some intrinsic, unintentional comedy is pulling a cross out of a leather bag to brandish at an adversary, Summerfield convinces of the strategic cunning of van Helsing’s move and not only keeps chuckles to a minimum but makes you feel ashamed for thinking something so serious to the doctor is funny. (Folks up in arms about plain red cups at Starbucks can be grateful Hedgerow left the Christ in “Dracula” and did it with no intended bathos.)

Summerfield’s van Helsing is commanding and interacts well with everyone. She even counsels kindness when dealing with a supplicating, but perhaps duplicitous, Renfield.

Between PAC’s “The Captive” and this “Dracula,” John Lopes earns the prize as concerned stage father of the year. Lopes is direct in Seward’s approach to both van Helsing, for whom he sends in desperation for his daughter’s safety, and Renfield, of whom he has care. Lopes conveys solidity and dignity in his role.

Josh Portera’s role is one that is almost entirely comic. He’s the warder who is supposed to keep Renfield in his cell but hasn’t figured out how to confine a man who slips out of chains. Elude bars, and whisk over walls. Portera plays his guard, always threatened about losing his position, with huffing exasperation.

Zoran Kovcic’ set design gives Hodge and Hernandez a lot of space to work while having enough corners and crevices from which Dracula can appear unexpectedly and to which Renfield can run for retreat. Robin Stamey’s lighting designs allows for creeping shadows and a fireplace that casts an eerie orange light that seems so perfect for the period in which “Dracula” is set. Kayla Speedy did well with costumes. J Hernandez helped prop designers Grey Kelsey and Susan Wefel, by bringing his own fangs to the production.

“Dracula” runs through Sunday, November 22, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. (No performance is scheduled for Thursday, November 12.) Tickets range from $34 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.

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