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Rorschach Theatre has made its mark (or inkblot, perhaps) with performances staged in unconventional spaces, and its latest offering is perfect for spooky season. Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really is performed inside an out-of-commission firehouse on the former Walter Reed campus—a space without the benefit of traditional stage exits or climate control, which makes for an experience that’s literally chilling and thrilling. Fire pits and hot drinks before the show and at intermission further set the scene, and add a sleepaway camp vibe.
Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really takes the classic tale and gives it a women-forward twist. Jonathan Harker (Conor Patrick Donahue) travels to help Count Dracula sort through his business affairs and becomes ensnared in the Count’s evil deeds. His pregnant wife, Mina (Jessica Ludd), passes the time while he’s away gabbing about marriage and womanhood with her pal Lucy (Bri Houtman), but becomes suspicious when she receives oddly vague letters from her husband. When Lucy falls ill and begins acting strangely, and her bumbling doctor fiance, Seward (Erik Harrison), is totally clueless, Mina and vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (Phoenix Cross) must outwit both the vampire king and the inept men around them.
The play has lots of intriguing ideas about damsels in distress and the roles women play, some of which coalesce better than others. Van Helsing serves as an avatar for women who have been underestimated or who must elbow their way to a seat at the table, and some of her zingy retorts are all too pertinent to modern women. Her ideas about evolutionary theory and how it relates to violence and misogyny are some of the most interesting notions in the show. Marissa Liotta and Jolene Mafnas are delightful as Drusilla and Murilla, a pair of horny henchwomen who lurch around the stage and demonstrate that a codependent, mind-controlled vampiric relationship really isn’t all that different from a traditional marriage. Mina is smarter and more capable than the typical hapless heroine, but one can’t help but wish for a little more badassery from the character in what is meant to be an explicitly feminist work. The best subversion of a female trope comes from Christina Day as Renfield, an asylum resident who’s Dracula’s biggest fangirl. This is a character gender-swapped from the novel, and she could all too easily fall into stereotypical madwoman mode, but her unrequited devotion and daddy issues add a unique layer of desperation.
The firehouse space is used to great effect, and though there are some limitations, they’re worked around creatively. There are huge doorways that lead to cavernous spaces in the back, with gauzy curtains used to separate the space and to cast dramatically lit silhouettes. Frames and set decor are hung from floodlights, alarms, and other industrial fixtures, and Renfield’s crazed scribbles of poetry line a wall that extends into the audience. The actors don’t use microphones, which lends an intimate feel, but also causes audibility issues and unclear line readings at times. The use of sound effects to simulate bones snapping, blood spurting, or guts squelching, however, is particularly good.
Though there are some parts of the feminist message that fall a little flat, the sharp ending offers the most insightful piece of commentary of the whole show, and the overall spirit is there. A full two-thirds of the cast and roles are women, with some of the roles gender-swapped from the original book. Even though the play probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, since everyone is always talking about the titular villain, he is mostly absent in favor of the woman protagonist. Pay no attention to the man behind the coffin—this one’s for the ladies.
Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, directed by Rebecca Rovezzi and written by Kate Hamill, plays at The Parks at Historic Walter Reed through November 6. rorschachtheatre.com. $30–$45.