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'Drakul' and 'Vampire Lesbian of Sodom': theater that drips red

You wouldn't know it to look at us, but we Minnesotans are fairly accomplished monster hunters. Just for starters, there are the Aurness brothers, better known by their professional names: James Arness and Peter Graves. The former battled giant ants in the 1954 film "Them!" The latter fought off giant locusts in 1957's "Beginning of the End." There are also University of Minnesota alumni Ernie Hudson, who was a Ghostbuster, and Ron Perlman, who actually played a monster who fought monsters: Hellboy. And, of course, there is Garrison Keillor, who enjoys a healthy side business battling werewolves, although this fact is not well known.

In fact, Minnesota produced the original cinematic monster hunter. Sure, there had been monster films before the 1931 screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," including a thoroughly illegal 1921 adaptation of Stoker's book called "Nosferatu," which ignored Stoker's copyright and, as a result, was targeted by Stoker's widow for destruction: She wanted every copy burned. But this film is not "Dracula"; not completely. It lacks the vampire's human nemesis, the phlegmatic and decidedly eccentric Dutch physician Abraham Van Helsing. It wouldn't be until the authorized 1931 version, adapted from a popular stage version, that Van Helsing would make his first onscreen appearance. And who played him? Edward Van Sloan, who also appeared in the theatrical production. And where did he hail from? Well, some biographies claim San Francisco, but according to a 1910 census and Van Sloan's own death certificate, he was a Minnesotan.

So perhaps it is no surprise that Twin Cities theater is currently home to not one, but two vampire plays. The first is Walking Shadow's new adaptation of "Dracula," titled "Drakul" and scripted by John Heimbuch. This has gotten some lukewarm reviews, and I can, perhaps, understand why. It's a longish play, and very talky, and the titular Romanian vampire is mostly kept in the background, with the story focusing on the small gang of London high-society types that Dracula foolishly chose as his victims. It has a fractured narrative, leaping about the chronology of the story like somebody had dropped the script and hurriedly scooped the loose leaves up, and didn't let anybody know. And the play doesn't have any big shocks in it, or anything by the way of stage legerdemain, for that matter, that might set audiences screaming, screaming from the horror of it all. I suppose if people wanted to focus on these criticisms, well, they're valid, and I wouldn't blame them.

Melissa Anne Murphy and Charles Hubbell in "Drakul"
Photo by Elise Rosen
Melissa Anne Murphy and Charles Hubbell in "Drakul"

That being said, Heimbuch has produced a sprightly and unusually intelligent adaptation of Stoker's original novel that is fathoms better than any stage adaptation I have ever seen. He teases out themes that Stoker merely touched on in his book, and they're awfully fun. For example, Stoker set his novel at the dawn of modernity and surrounded his characters with the accouterments of the newly modern world, such as record players and newly developed medical techniques. (On a side note: One queasy element of the novel is that Dracula repeatedly drains the blood of Lucy Westenra, a 19-year-old flirt, and, at Van Helsing's insistence, the others replenish her veins with transfusions. But they don't bother with blood typing, and Lucy grows progressively sicker. I've always wanted to write a version is which Van Helsing kills Lucy due to acute hemolytic reaction, and then blames whatever despised immigrant happens to be nearby — hey, how about the weird Romanian count who just moved in next door!)

In Heimbuch's version, all the characters are experiencing a sort of Victorian version of Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock," in which technological changes leave them both astonished and adrift. Dracula himself, played with an abundance of ironic wit and a tendency toward sudden melancholy by the funereal Charles Hubbell, is particularly struck with this — he hints that his interest in London is that people have just gotten too modern to remember the old myths, and how to defend themselves against them. But, more than that, he really seems to want to go to a movie.

Although Heimbuch follows many of the details of the book rather closely — he includes the aristocratic Arthur Holmwood as a character, who is almost always left out, and ends the play with a wild west-style chase through the Carpathian Mountains, which is likewise usually abandoned. But some of it he draws from later inventions — the madman Renfield, as an example, is a minor character in the book whose particular lunacy makes him a sort of motion sensor to the presence of the vampire. Later plays and films expanded his role greatly, sending him off to Transylvania to assist with some real-estate transactions before he loses his mind to the occult. Heimbuch's play goes a step further. Renfield, played here by Sam Landman, is as developed a character as any in the play, a witty eccentric whose madness might merely be his philosophical attempt to come to terms with having been witness to an impossibility that is born of and sustained by blood. Heimbuch rescues a line from Francis Ford Coppola's bonkers 1992 adaptation of Dracula, having Renfield declare "I'm a sane man fighting for his soul," and it makes a lot more sense here.

In some ways, Heimbuch's version is better than Stoker's, although I know it is heresy to declare so. The London gang are raving bores in the book, and one in particular, the Texan Quincey Morris, is written with such a broad regional accent that he seems more comedic than heroic. (Needless to say, Mr. Morris likewise is usually left out of adaptations.) But Heimbuch carefully limns each character, and, in an unusual framing devise, revisits them after the terrible events of the book have ended, and they have badly reintegratred themselves into their former lives or definitively failed to do so. They've become a wretched, haunted lot, their interactions fraught with jealousy and an unspoken shared history, and they're far more interesting characters than Stoker could be bothered to create. Quincey Morris, whom we only see in flashbacks, and is played here by Erik Hoover, manages to have an easygoing bonhomie and an baroque formality, all offered up with an "aw shucks" sort of Texan drawl, and it's quite appealing. I wouldn't blame anybody for making this character the primary monster hunter, although he's a Texan. Perhaps he could enroll in the University of Minnesota.

Kara Greshwalk, Kendra Cashmore and Margaret McDonald in "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom"
Photo by Mark Hooker
Kara Greshwalk, Kendra Cashmore and Margaret McDonald in "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom"

The other vampire play is a bit madder. It's an extremely stripped-down production of Charles Busch's camp masterpiece "Vampire Lesbian of Sodom" produced by Brazen Theatre Company. Now, Busch tends to work best when producers just lose their minds on set design and, especially, costume design — the play was a product of the East Village's drag community, after all. It delights in kitsch, and the defining factor of kitsch is that you don't simply guild the lily, but you then dip the gilded lily in perfume, encrust it with jewels, and surround it with plaster of Paris dancing cherubim. Brazen's production has no set and barely has costumes. This could have been an opportunity to indulge in nudity, which I always encourage, but, alas, no.

But, once in a while, the play's game cast captures the hysterical tone of Hollywood melodrama that Busch scripted — his is a tale of competing immortals who, unlike Dracula, don't merely wish to see a movie, but want to star in them. Ideally, this play would have starred Bette Davis and Judy Garland, and they would have been unaware they were in a comedy. It's almost impossible to ask anybody else to approach that sort of madness, but Brazen manages it every so often, which is rather astonishing on a bare stage.

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