Fans of those 1960s Hammer Films horror classics like Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, and Taste The Blood Of Dracula, all starring Christopher Lee as the blood-sucking Count, will be in Hammer Horror Heaven at The House Of Besarab, now playing at the historic Hollywood American Legion Post 43. Though Terance Duddy and Theodore Ott’s adaptation of the classic Bram Stoker tale does not set out to be Shakespeare, then again, neither did those Hammer screenplays by Jimmy Sangster and John Elder. What lifted the Technicolor/Techniscope extravaganzas out of the ordinary were their stellar casts (Christopher Lee later became SirChristopher Lee, thank you very much) and their lush settings.

The same can be said for The House Of Besarab, whose cast do uniformly fine work (including several surprisingly rich performances) and whose setting is the lavish 80-year-old Hollywood landmark which housed the smash-hit mystery play Tamara during its record-breaking eleven-year run. As was the case with Tamara, the audience moves from room to room as the drama progresses, getting to choose which character to follow at various moments in the show. Though Tamara apparently utilized more of the legion post (aka Il Vittoriale) than does The House Of Besarab, the format still allows different audience members to see different scenes, though no matter which scenes you observe, you’ll probably still get pretty much a complete story.  (This format will doubtless inspire repeat visits by visitors eager to see just what they missed the first time.)

The plot is a familiar one.  Dr. Van Helsing (Travis Michael Holder) has traveled to Transylvania accompanied by psychiatrist Dr. Seward (Terra Shelman), solicitor Jonathan Harker (Dane Bowman), and Harker’s fiancée, Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (Chase McKenna) in hopes of discovering the reason for the strange, trance-like state which has overtaken Mina in recent days. There, they are greeted by the Count (Michael Hegedus), his cowed minion Renfield (David Himes), a pair of voluptuous vixens named Cruza (Megan Harwick) and Riva (Sara Spink), both of whom are expecting Dracula’s spawn, and Slava (Jason Parsons), a village youth kept in chains by his captor, the evil Count.

Before audience members are introduced to these characters, however, they are greeted at the entrance of the Legion Post by an elderly gypsy (Miliza Milo) and given a complimentary white necklace and cross as protection from Count D. Doors open an hour before the performance in order that Dracula’s guests may order a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or a cocktail at the post’s elegant art deco bar.  (Theatergoers with a “deluxe ticket” get free parking and a pair of tickets for a free pre-show libation and intermission hors d’oeuvres.)  They are then escorted into a sort of “holding room” where they are met by none other than that internationally infamous bloodsucker himself.

The first choice given to guests at Count Dracula’s castle is whether to follow A) Dr. Van Helsing and his entourage or B) Dracula and his vixens.  If you prefer option A be sure to sit on the left side of the holding room.  If option B tempts you, then the right side is for you. My guest and I followed Dr. Van Helsing, and later, when given the option of staying with the doctor or following Mina, we chose the fair young damsel. The options which we chose in Acts One and Two allowed us to witness both the drugging of the Van Helsing party and the birthing of Cruza’s devil-child. Other guests witnessed quite different scenes, though occasionally both groups do find themselves seated together.

Though the cast could just as easily have played the script for its camp value, director Duddy has them take their roles quite seriously, resulting in some terrific, intense work by classical theater vets Holder, Shelman, Bowman, and McKenna, the latter of whom gives an especially touching performance which reveals all the pain and sadness in Mina’s blood-deprived heart. Hegedus is a fine Hungarian-accented Dracula in the Bela Lugosi-Christopher Lee tradition, and Harwick, Himes, and Spink give solid support.  I would have liked to see more of Parsons’ Slava, the sexy bearded peasant boy kept chained and occasionally whipped by the evil count, though sadly our paths only crossed in two short scenes.  Milo is appropriately mysterious in her role as the gypsy greeting committee of one.

Duddy, who was associate producer of the aforementioned Tamara, does multiple duty here, as co-adaptor, director, producer, and understudy of all five male roles.  He has also designed the sets which transform Il Vittoriale into various rooms of Dracula’s elegant castle and the unobtrusively-installed, mood-enhancing lighting. David Gibson’s music and sound design also serve to establish an atmosphere of romantic suspense, and Spink (who plays Riva) has designed the makeup and the production’s fancy period costumes.  There’s also a thrilling swordfight, choreographed by dashing Shakespeare vet Bowman.

I enjoyed The House Of Besarab thoroughly, as much as anything for its unique venue and the multiple-choice options offered audience members.  You too may have a screamingly good time being seduced by the Prince Of Darkness. 

The Hollywood American Legion Post 43, 2035 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 15, 2009
                                                                                                         Photos: Michael Lamont

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