February 19, 2008

Dark Humor

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The Department of Theatre, Film and Dance has audiences alternately rolling in their seats with laughter and cringing in fear with its production of Bob Hall and David Richmond’s The Passion of Dracula at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. Directed by David Feldshuh, this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula injects a welcome dose of hilarity into the gothic novel. The play’s magic lies in its wonderful ability to dance along the thin line between horror and humor. Following the lives of the inhabitants of a small town in the English countryside, the audience watches enthralled as they battle against the menacing forces of not only Count Dracula, but also the less tangible threats of darkness, evil and madness.
After a sudden plunge into darkness, the audience is immediately thrust into the tense atmosphere of suspicion in a small town plagued by the unusual murders of several young women. Dr. Cedric Seward (Paul Hebron) is faced with accusations that his insane asylum is somehow linked to the deaths. However, his and Lord Godalming’s (Ed Schiff) critical disbelief of the supernatural impede their abilites to come to terms with the mysterious occurrences. Instead, Dr. Seward, Lord Godalming and Dr. Helga Van Zandt (Katherine Karaus) turn to the latest in Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis and copious amounts of brandy as futile weapons against the very real danger of Count Dracula.
As the first indicator of Count Dracula’s presence, Mr. Renfield (Myles Rowland), an inmate of Dr. Seward’s sanatorium, is a hilarious source of comic relief. His unusual desire for consuming live creatures, mad ramblings and frenzied antics not only serve as the key to solving the mystery but also as a foil to the more dignified intellectuals’ failure to lose their tight grasp on what they believe to be real. Mr. Renfield is the extreme example of madness gone awry, but as the play progresses, the characters’ crippling fears of the unknown push many of them over the edge.
The Passion of Dracula thrusts us into a world where the interplay between light and dark reflects the larger struggle between good and evil. The play contrasts the lighthearted young love between the beautiful Wilhelmina Murray (Allison Buck) and the inquisitive journalist Jonathan Harker (Josh Burlingham), with the dark, twisted relationship between Wilhelmina and the gloomy Count Dracula (J.G. Hertzler). Pursuing the young woman to be his bride of darkness, Dracula is eerily similar to Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs in his desire for young flesh. Suave and self-important, Count Dracula is a formidable enemy with shape-shifting and mind control powers. However, as “the child of light,” Wilhelmina stands resolutely in opposition to the ghoulish blood drinker in the final showdown between Count Dracula and Professor Van Helsing (Carolyn Goelzer), who is armed with the weapons of her knowledge of vampire folklore and belief in the triumphant power of goodness.
Beyond the cast’s truly exceptional acting abilities, the play’s impressive scenery provides the perfect backdrop for the dramatic, smoke-filled entrances of Count Dracula. Asking us to momentarily suspend our disbelief, the play’s special effects add a touch of humor and a great deal of fun to the action on stage. With sudden changes in lighting to spooky noises and ghostly voices, the special effects are not only a testament to the skills of sound designer Warren Cross and props coordinator Tim Ostrander but also provide cues that complement the thematic elements of the play.
The Passion of Dracula indulges our occasional desire to be drawn into another world of pure fantasy, where things that go bump in the night are not merely figments of our imagination. With the broad appeal that vampires continue to have in the media, such as the highly popular 1994 film, Interview with the Vampire starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, our fascination with supernatural creatures speaks of our continued curiosity of the unknown and a fear of the unexplainable. Although preying upon our anxieties, The Passion of Dracula eases the darkness by adding far more cheerful fun and rollicking theatrics than what is usually found in the horror genre, resulting in a highly enjoyable blend of horror with all the merriment of comedy.