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The Daily Tar Heel

Mediocrity Slays Area Production of `Dracula'

Bela Lugosi, the 1920s screen star of "Dracula," used to promote his classic horror role with the claim that if one wanted to take a date to a production, "Dracula" was the appropriate choice.

He couldn't be more accurate. Seeing Raleigh Little Theatre's production of "Dracula" is a true test of how much your companion can endure. Between the annoying hysterics of ingenue Lucy and the incomprehensible utterances of Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing, this is a true night of fright.

The play's characters lack the depth and conviction necessary to parallel those in Bram Stoker's horror novel. The character of Dracula (Jonathon Demers) ridicules the king of all vampires as he appears little more than a flirtatious lady-killer with obnoxiously bad timing, light footsteps and a familiarity with Freudian psychology. Even worse, the thick accents of the characters of Van Helsing and Dracula make it difficult to discern what they are saying.

"Dracula" presents only morsels of Stoker's storyline and digresses from the relationships between the original characters.

The production is unique in its setting - while Stoker placed his tale in late-19th-century rural Transylvania, this production is set in a sanatorium in 1927 in Purley, England. The change was made possible by the invention of the airplane, which provided a means for the playwright to transport Dracula to England from Transylvania in one night without encountering the perilous light of day.

Minor characters steal Dracula's thunder. The characters of Butterworth (David Bennett), one of the men in white coats, and the maid (Laura Jenkins) give strong performances that create the only humor in the play. A scene in which Butterworth scares the maid with a mouse sparks real laughs from the audience.

Renfield, played by Jack Prather, is admirable even as a bug-eating lunatic who has been so vanquished by Count Dracula's power that he cannot stand upright. Considerable development goes into Renfield's character due to the fact that he strives to separate himself from Dracula; he shows elements of moral conscience in his concern for his soul and takes only the blood of insects rather than people.

While the performances by minor characters are stellar, the set design in the first act is anything but well-planned. The setting of Dr. Seward's library subtly connotes the theme of revival after death, yet resembles a taxidermist's front parlor with its ostentatious stuffed owl, beaver and deer's head. A badly placed, obtrusive desk separates the audience from the action of the play.

In the final act, however, the set design dazzles: The library is transformed into a mystical underground vampire's tomb complete with icicles and mist.

Haskell Fitz-Simmons directed the production. The UNC alumnus noted that "Dracula" was a very modern play in the `20s.

"When the play first ran in 1927, there were all sorts of anachronistic devices mentioned that were not in Bram Stoker's 1897 horror novel: airplanes, cars, and telegraphs," he said.

Fitz-Simmons selected this, the classic horror play Bela Lugosi starred in, because it became the basis for all the Dracula movies.

This production of "Dracula," however, fails in its attempt to instill a fear of the undead in the hearts of its patrons and misses the comedy intended by the antics of the cast.

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