Though he never appears on stage during the play’s 90-minute running time, the real star of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, currently wowing North Hollywood audiences, is the man who conceived and directed the supernaturally screamalicious production—Ken Sawyer. In lesser hands, and without the state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment at the NoHo Arts Center, Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston’s stage play might be a campy, creaky mess.  Instead, it is an entirely thrilling evening of theater which provides the pleasures of the greatest horror films—shocks and screams galore—in three dimensions and surround sound.

The sounds of bats and other night creatures are already permeating the air as the audience takes their seats, screeching and chirping and clicking and whistling to their bat-hearts’ content.  (The spectacular sound design is Sawyer’s as well.) Then, following pre-show announcements delivered in an appropriately Transylvanian accent, Dracula’s dramatic horror movie-like soundtrack fills the theater as, amidst flashing strobe lights, a naked Count Dracula attacks his first nubile victim of the evening.

We then switch to the home of Dr. Lily Seward (Karesa McElheny), director of an institute for the mentally deranged, where her pale, anemic, bedridden daughter Lucy (Darcy Jo Martin) has been suffering from horrifying nightmares.  Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Joe Hart) has arrived to cure poor Lucy, who is exhibiting the same symptoms as did Mina Murray before her recent demise. Given transfusions during the day, Lucy perks up as the evening approaches, but by the following morning, is once again just as weak as before, with two strange marks on her neck. Both Dr. Seward and Lucy’s fiancé Jonathan Harker (J.R. Mangels) are at a loss to understand what ails the poor girl until Dr. Van Helsing comes up with a possible explanation—it just could be the attack of a vampire, a creature who drinks the blood of the living in order to stay, if not alive, then at least “undead.”  Said vampires must spend the daylight hours in a coffin surrounded by native soil, explains Dr. V. H.  It takes a while for Van Helsing and the others to realize that their elegant Transylvanian visitor, Count Dracula (Robert Arbogast), may be telling the bloody truth when he remarks with apparent casualness, “I never drink … wine.”

Completing the Seward household are madhouse attendant Butterworth (Chad Coe), batty bug-eating patient Renfield (Alex Robert Holmes), and household maid Wells (Tahni DeLong).

A quick googling of regional and community theater productions of Dracula reveals how easily a mediocre staging can be at best mildly scary and at worst unintentionally comic. Sawyer’s exquisitely realized vision is neither. Desma Murphy’s set design for the NoHo Arts Center’s two-story stage is a marvelous blend of murals and torn curtains and doors leading who knows where, but it’s really Luke Moyer’s brilliant, award-worthy lighting (and some liberally used stage fog) which creates the eerie atmosphere and multiple shock effects.  Add to that Sawyer’s sound design, which incorporates a variety of just-right horror themes and the beyond state-of-the-art sound and lighting system installed at the NoHo Arts Center for last year’s Pest Control and you have a theatrical experience that few if any 99-seat theaters could equal. These are the sound and lighting designs to beat in 2009.

Performances are just right, the cast playing it straight, yet keeping a subtle sense of humor about the whole thing.  Arbogast may be one of the sexiest Draculas ever, Hart is a fine, authoritative Van Helsing, and McElheny is her usual commanding presence as Dr. Seward (made female for this production). Holmes is a standout as the deliciously creepy/nutty Renfield as is Martin, who gets to play the broadest spectrum of emotions as Lucy. Mangels does fine, understated work as Lucy’s concerned fiancé.  The employees (Coe and DeLong) are very good as well.  In smaller roles, Mara Marini is a beautiful-but-undead Mina and 11-year-old Jake Gardner appears effectively as Mina’s child victim.

Paula Higgens’ costumes capture a period feel without being of any particular period, though Lucy’s Fredericks Of Hollywood teddy over black bra and hotpants seems out of place.

Saturday’s enthusiastically gasping and shrieking standing-room-only audience portends a long run for this thrillingly staged revival of an oft-told tale. For those who can never get enough of Halloween, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the perfect cure for the winter doldrums.

NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 21, 2009
                                                 Photography: Michael Lamont

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