Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Just in time for Halloween: Dracula rises at CCPA

Cynthia Stults as Lucy Westenra and Paul Flores as Dr. John Seward. (Photo by James Wolf)

I first met “Dracula” not in the cosy haunts of some movie theater, but when my mother gave me the Bram Stoker novel for my birthday, back in the 7th grade. To say I found it creepy is an understatement, but I also found it absolutely compelling – enough so that I became the kind of “Dracula” snob only a 13-year-old can be. All film and television versions left out some detail I deemed fabulously important. All were mere shadows of the original.

Several decades later, I have lost some of that youthful perfectionist bent, but I still admit finding most versions of “Dracula” rather annoyingly inaccurate in silly ways, such as the trend to flip the names of the two female characters. Now, at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts, they have come up with a version which, though pared down, follows the book better than any I’ve seen. Yet, it also offers up the reasons for the adaptations I so disdained when young: what makes a good Victorian moral thriller may not translate into the most theatrically dramatic piece of stage work.

The adaptation, by Steven Dietz, takes one to all the requisite places: Lucy’s bedroom, Dr. Seward’s sanatorium, and the oppressively gothic castle of Count Dracula himself. All the overt religiosity is there, as is that fragile edge between passion and madness which fuels everyone from Jonathan Harker to Dr. Van Helsing. The count “youths” as he feeds – one of the more disquieting elements of the book – and the crazed Renfield devours living things with a singular excitement.

It also looks right. Costumer Mark Gamez gets the gentlemen into period clothes, not just tail coats masquerading as Victorian garb. Likewise, the women, from servants to major characters, have the correct silhouette for the era, and Dracula has a lusciously swoopable cape. Set designers Brandon Hudrlik and Angelo Collado have used the concept of multiple area/level layout to great effect, avoiding the otherwise necessary pauses between scenes in this excruciatingly episodic storyline.

Director John Butz has choreographed the telling of the tale to make great use of that set, and has peopled it with folk who behave like Victorians, for better or worse. He does manage to work in some odd bits of Dracula’s commanding magic too, which is fun.

Best of the cast is Anthony Rutowicz’s truly disturbing Renfield. Sometimes nearly sane-sounding, sometimes grotesquely bizarre in his behaviors and desires, it’s a beautifully crafted bit of acting. Also worthy of particular note is Michael Cavalero’s obsessive Van Helsing – a man wracked by an understanding difficult to share.

Katie Jolgren provides a simple sweetness as young Mina, whose fiance’s business trip to Transylvania begins the entire adventure. As Lucy, the lively young woman who becomes Dracula’s first English victim, Cynthia Stults manages to portray the shifts in personality, though it’s hard to see her as wan. Brendan Shanahan, tall and slender, towers as Dracula himself, and brings with him just enough intimidation factor to make it all work.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to portray someone staunchly noble and suitably in control, as a good Victorian hero should be. This is underscored in Joshua Prisk’s carefully created but rather stolid Jonathan Harker, and even more in Paul Flores’ Dr. Seward, who seems to approach things only at opposite ends of the spectrum: deadpan or overwhelmingly emotional. Tre Brown, Laura De Lano and Liz Heathcoat round out the cast as various servants, lesser vampires and sanatorium attendants.

The net result is this: if you want to see a fairly genuine version of the original vampire thriller, this is it. Episodic (it’s a big book to cram into two hours) and understated, it will not have the scream factor of modern horror stories. For a Victorian, here as with the opening sequences of “A Christmas Carol,” the fright was found in tone, in personality, and in that terrible sense of helplessness against evil which made one ever vigilant.

See it, and it may inspire you to explore the book itself. Fascinating, as the director notes, that Stoker’s novel about an undead immortal should have made him, and his idea, so – well – immortal.

What: “Dracula” When: Through October 30, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; special dinner and show package, Friday October 21 Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 general, $38 VIP, $49.95 dinner-show package Info: (626) 331-8133 or

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