Dracula at Long Beach Playhouse

Photo by Michael Hardy
Lee Samuel Tanng as as psychiatric patient Renfeld in the Long Beach Playhouse’s production of Dracula. Pictured in the background is Stephen Alan Carver as the titular character.

Horror stories reflect the societal fears of the time periods they were conceived in, and more often than not, are all too relevant generations later. For instance, worries about immigration, dangerous foreigners and social, scientific and technological change pervade society today just as they did in the Victorian Era in which Dracula, the play adaptation running at the Long Beach Playhouse through Oct. 21, is based.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula has inspired many adaptations, vampire stories, and even a (sexy) Vampire Renaissance. This version of the gothic horror novel was initially modified by Hamilton Deane for the first authorized stage production in 1924, and then by John Balderston, who came out with a shortened Americanized version three years later. It’s this version that Bela Lugosi starred in on the stage in 1927 and in the classic 1931 movie, which also gave us a more suave and sexed-up Dracula than the novel.

The story centers around Dracula and his adversary, Dr. Van Helsing, a worldly professor and vampire hunter. The formerly healthy Lucy Seward’s rapid deterioration is the impetus for Van Helsing’s arrival on the scene, which just so happens to be the perfect setting for a horror story– a psychiatric hospital. Lucy’s father, Dr. Seward, runs the hospital, and Count Dracula lives in the castle next door. Playing the part of the good neighbor, Dracula is charming, helpful and concerned, all while feasting on Lucy’s blood at night, of course.

It’s a premise ripe for metaphors. Dracula represents Old World mysticism and superstition, Dr. Seward science, and Van Helsing a combination of science and faith. Dracula is the culmination of Victorian-era societal fears. He is an infiltrator with mysterious customs from distant Eastern European lands, a defiler of purity and morality (i.e., Lucy), a predator who targets the vulnerable in society (women, children, and the mentally ill are all bitten), a duplicitous person whose power protects him from repercussions.

He is also a reflection and condemnation of society. Is Dracula any more possessive of Lucy than Dr. Seward and her fiancé Harker, who answer for her and make poor decisions on her behalf? Is Dracula’s callous treatment of his victims that different than the way Dr. Seward treats his patients, whom he locks up and talks down to?

Though it may seem as though we’ve come a long way from the Victorian era, these themes and questions point to the timeless nature of oppression. Ultimately, Dracula is both everything we fear in others and everything we fear in ourselves.

Watching the Long Beach Playhouse’s Dracula is like seeing the 1931 Bela Lugosi film come to life. Dark suspenseful scenes are skillfully lit by light designer Donald Jackson in that hazy, shadowy way that old horror movies and film noirs do. Sound designer Julie Moore gives her own winking nod to classic horror films with dramatic music that crescendos cheesily in time with the action.

The acting follows in suit. Christian Jordan Skinner is almost a little too good as the bland and devoted fiancé who is willing to believe in vampires right away if it means saving his Lucy. Stephen Alan Carver is appropriately creepy and foreboding as Dracula, especially in those pauses before he speaks (or bites). Geraldine Fuentes is a likeable, though occasionally mumbling, Van Helsing. And hospital attendant Julian Bremer deserves a mention for an impressive bit of physical comedy involving a couch and a well-timed tumble.

Lee Samuel Tanng gives the most dynamic performance as psychiatric patient Renfeld. He darts about the room, moving from frenzied to poetic to desperation with ease. He only has a few scenes, but he steals all of them. The character and Tanng’s performance remind us that how we treat the most vulnerable members of society says a lot about the culture we live in.

Going to see Dracula at the Long Beach Playhouse is a perfect way to celebrate the Halloween season. But it is an enduring story because the horror cannot be contained to just one month. Dracula isn’t only a tale about the boogeyman in our nightmares, it is also a mirror of ourselves and all the evils our fears, prejudices and small-mindedness inspire.

Dracula continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Saturday, Oct. 21, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $20-$24 (seniors are $21 and students are $14). For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014, or visit lbplayhouse.org.

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