If you, like me, have an emotional default set to low-level dread, terror lurks everywhere. Consider the climate emergency, the coronavirus, rising far-right extremism, the disappearance of frogs, crimes over avocados. Last week, I stumbled on a study of hair dye toxicity that sent me into an hourslong Google spiral, and I now know uncomfortable things about p-Phenylenediamine. Which is to say that modern life is scary. So it’s baffling that two new adaptations of horror classics — “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” running in repertory at Classic Stage Company — are not. In fact, they summon all the terror of a cooling mug of chamomile tea.
Individually, the plays have their pleasures, with “Dracula” the more (sorry!) toothsome. Collectively, running these versions in repertory is a thing that goes flop in the night.
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” released in 1897, are stranger, squirmier novels than their pop-culture legacies suggest. Works that both defy and create genre, they adopt peculiar forms. “Frankenstein” opens and closes with a letter from a polar explorer to his sister. “Dracula” assembles itself from telegrams, diary entries, doctor’s notes and ship’s logs.
Both books operate on at least two levels — as thrilling tales and elusive allegories. “Dracula” has been read as a metaphor for capitalism, colonialism, sexual desire, anxieties around the New Woman. “Frankenstein,” invented by a teenager on a wet vacation, has inspired interpretations centered on scientific responsibility, climate change, a horror of childbirth. Theatrical adaptations can’t and shouldn’t encompass all that, but they need to integrate both story and symbolism in some graceful, playable way, which neither of these scripts manages.
“Frankenstein,” adapted by the English writer and performer Tristan Bernays, field-dresses Shelley’s novel, skinning and deboning it to less than 80 minutes. It approaches the text in ways both abstract and overly literal, sometimes excerpting entire paragraphs. The only figures onstage are Stephanie Berry, who plays both the unscrupulous biology major Victor Frankenstein and his creature, and Rob Morrison, an actor and musician, who plays the Chorus and briefly, Victor’s doomed bride. Under Timothy Douglas’s direction, the storytelling is vexed, the themes evasive. If you are not closely acquainted with the novel, you might find yourself confused or merely bored, which might explain why late in the play, with the creature poised to wreak terrible vengeance, you could see a dozen or so audience members sweetly sleeping.
Bernays’s version, which skips the arctic intro and the chapter’s on Victor’s childhood and education (an entirely defensible move), dashes straight to the reanimation part. As Morrison makes a guitar howl and moan, Berry, wearing a watch cap and a white tunic that splits the difference between lab coat and hospital gown, arranges herself on what looks like a Restoration Hardware woodshop table. (John Doyle, Classic Stage Company’s artistic director, designed both sets.) Abruptly, the creature shudders into life. In a long sequence, wordless and dancelike — save for Berry’s exclaimed huhs — the creature learns the use of his limbs, with Berry articulating each joint. Animate, the creature galumphs to what is presumably a forest, where he finds canisters full of Swiss chard and berries. With the help of an obliging audience member, he acquires language, too.
The birth and forest scenes occupy about half the show’s running time. (“Shouldn’t he have strangled someone by now?,” I scribbled in my notes.) Then, after a brief conversation between the creature and his maker, Berry transforms into Frankenstein, then back into the creature, before the piece rushes to its absurd, icebound conclusion.
Bernays’s reimagining doesn’t lack for theatricality. And by foregrounding the creature’s experience and delaying the violence, Bernays solicits our empathy for him — a provocative choice, as Shelley skews a lot more equivocal. In denaturing the stage action from the narrative, though, the play makes it possible to admire Berry’s certified-organic artistry and Morrison’s haunting accompaniment, without feeling anything like unease. Is it alive? It is not.
With “Dracula,” Kate Hamill, an actress and go-to adapter of literary classics, doesn’t stint on story or symbolism. The script, which Hamill labels “A bit of a feminist revenge fantasy, really” is fun. Yet it is also fearless, and not in the Cosmo way. Hamill reads “Dracula” as a tale of toxic masculinity. Her scenes underline the theme with all the subtlety of a highway billboard. Can’t a stake be just a stake? At least sometimes?
Hamill married the actor Jason O’Connell during previews. While some women might have flown away for a tropical honeymoon, she is opening each show as Mrs. Renfield, an asylum inmate, in sad-panda eye makeup and a deconstructed straitjacket, writing in what seems to be her own blood. The action then swoops to Transylvania with the introduction of Count Dracula (a suave, wild-eyed Matthew Amendt), who looses his demon brides on an uptight London lawyer, Jonathan (Michael Crane, beautifully uptight). “It’s your own fault, darling,” the women hiss. “Coming in here. Dressed like that.”
Back in England, Jonathan’s pregnant wife, Mina (Kelley Curran, a still point even in the silliest of storms), is holidaying with her friend Lucy (Jamie Ann Romero) and Lucy’s fiancé, Doctor Seward (Matthew Saldivar), who runs the asylum. This intercontinental scurrying settles down with the introduction of Van Helsing (Jessica Frances Dukes, whom you should always invite in), a vampire hunter, imagined by the costume designer Robert Perdziola as a gutterpunk gunslinger. She enlists Mina and a reluctant Doctor Seward (a Victorian #NotAllMen type) in maintaining the sanctity of England’s blood supply.
Under Sarna Lapine’s antic, hectic direction, with heavy use of red gels from the lighting designer, Adam Honoré, “Dracula” strikes a tone more comic than serious and more contemporary than period, but rarely wholly confident. The language ranges from Victorian pastiche to modern vernacular and inanity. “You can say this phenomenon is caused by poltergeists or hobgoblins or tiny glowing worms from Planet Bellybutton,” Doctor Seward fumes. Several good bits seem borrowed from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “Pointy end, Mina!” Van Helsing instructs.
Hamill writes juicy, munchy, crunchy roles that actors like to play. Their enthusiasm produces a kind of thrall. But the characters, undead and otherwise, never feel fully human. Their peril generates no horror. The play’s stakes, I kept thinking, ought to be higher. Pointier, anyway.
Dracula and Frankenstein
In repertory through March 8 at Classic Stage Company, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, classicstage.org. “Dracula” running time: 2 hours 20 minutes; “Frankenstein” running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
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