“Dracula” brings the absurd to the Yale Cabaret

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Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is perhaps the most iconic vampire story ever written. It features a small band of friends who bravely hunt down and defeat Dracula in order to save their loved ones from the curse of vampirism. It is lush and dramatic, with noble protagonists, a depraved villain and a clear and thrilling plot.

This isn’t Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”

Dim red stage lights and candlelit tables turn the Yale Cabaret into a smoky barroom for the play “Dracula,” written by Mac Wellman and directed by Jack Tamburri DRA ’13. The hazy, bizarre and slightly seedy impression given by the lighting is more than fitting, because Wellman’s “Dracula” speeds past descriptions such as “strange” and “baffling” without a second glance, ending up somewhere on the border between “disturbing” and “incomprehensible.”

The performance starts out with some semblance of normalcy. Childhood friends Mina Harker (Hannah Sorenson DRA ’13) and Lucy Westenra (Marissa Neitling DRA ’13) wax poetic about the night, while commiserating over the fate of Mina’s husband Jonathan Harker (DRA ’12). But immediately afterwards the play turns towards the surreal. In a flashback, it is revealed that Jonathan, the intrepid hero of the original novel, is first to fall under Dracula’s (Inka Guðjónsdóttir DRA ’12) influence in this adaptation. Jonathan becomes insane, and for most of the play his role is limited to mad monologues in an asylum cell.

Monologues are central to “Dracula,” because it is in this mode that most of the plot unfolds. Much of the performance occurs through narrative recounting, and only towards the end does action take place. The characters speak about these remembered events and philosophize on bizarre and unconnected subjects. One lovingly describes the process of eating a blowfly, and his manservant sings of “Mad Sally, humping on a grave,” finishing with “Bonka bonka bonka bonk.” These moments make as little sense in context as they do out of it, and after a while the viewer might begin to question whether Jonathan Harker is the only one who is mad.

The actors perform madness with admirable vigor. In “Dracula,” there are no subtle glances or pregnant silences. Instead, the actors launch directly into gibbering, blubbering, insane laughter and inhuman screeches, and ensure that every snarl is just as horrifying and disorienting as the next. Neitling’s performance of Lucy in particular is an interesting mix of coy girlishness and eventual murderous intent, while Jonathan slobbers and chases his spiders with disquieting enthusiasm, and the vampirettes (Sarah Krasnow DRA ’14 and Alex Trow DRA ’12) change between raunchy burlesque singers and hissing, baby-eating monsters.

In a strange and possibly deliberate twist, Count Dracula is the only character who does not seem absurd. In a play where the heroine snuggles in the lap of a large black dog, and where a pivotal, dramatic hospital scene takes place concurrently with a couple loudly having sex in a corner, Dracula comes as a breath of sanity. He is cold and grave and occasionally darkly humorous, and together with Lucy he shares some of the most interesting double entendres in the show. Dracula is likely to be a target for audience empathy, if only because everyone else is too alien.

“Dracula” is a well-acted and well-staged show that is defined, for better or worse, by its script. Is it a confused jumble of sound and fury? Is it a profound work of art too great to understand? Or is it an intentionally confused jumble posing as profound to trip up those who insist on digging for deep and significant meanings in everything? The viewer’s taste for postmodernism is likely to determine his answer to that question, as well as his enjoyment of the show. For one unfamiliar with postmodernism, “Dracula” might serve as an introduction to the genre.

Or, in the dying words of Lucy Westenra, “Bonka bonka bonka bonk.”

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