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As Halloween draws near, classic monsters often creep onto our stages. In that spirit, Synetic Theater has reanimated its adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Since the novel’s publication 125 years ago, its tale of a decadent Transylvanian aristocrat bringing supernatural terror to London after a strange real estate deal has sunk its fangs deeply into the bloodstream of our popular culture.
In Synetic Theater’s production, scenic designer Phil Charlwood has opted for a mostly bare stage, black with several cubical plinths. (Given just how much black-on-black is on stage, lighting designer Ian Claar does impressive work keeping things distinct.) There are a few props, such as crosses and coffin lids, but the magic of this adaptation is left largely to the physicality of the performers, their costumes, and a simple, but highly effective element: a large black sheet of fabric running the length of the entire stage. This cloth, when held taut, becomes the hull of the ship that transports Dracula (Dan Istrate), his three brides (Maryam Najafzada, Irene Hamilton, and Anna Tsikurishvili), and caskets of Transylvanian soil to England. The same cloth is so elastic that when stretched across Istrate’s body, it allows Dracula to appear as a shadow made solid.
At times it’s hard to tell where choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili and fight choreographer Vato Tsikurishvili take over from director Paata Tsikurishvili, so well integrated are their contributions, but together they create vivid tableaux. There is marvelous spectacle, both grand and small, from the murderous dance of the brides as they seduce and slaughter the gentlemen of London, the galloping ride of Jonathan Harker (Jacob Thompson) through the wild woods of Walachia, to the ruins of Carfax Abbey, made tangible through mime under the hands of vampire slayers.
The production also pays homage to classic film: Dancing coffins recall F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized silent film adaptation Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror from 1922 (Stoker’s heirs successfully sued but some prints thankfully survived the court-ordered burning), while the uncanny goings-on in Castle Dracula remind one of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Yet Tsikurishvili’s version gives us unexpected images, such as when the brides become the steeds that draw the carriage carrying Jonathan to his fate.
There is also copious stage blood and plenty of writhing and undulating vampire bodies for those who like their vampires sexy.
While the choreography shows the sharp creativity one has come to expect from Synetic Theater, Nathan Weinberger’s script has an uneven bite. Stoker’s novel is mostly told in letters, journal entries, and news clippings, and the few pre-recorded excerpts from the book work very well in setting the scenes. However, when it comes to dialogue, far too often our familiarity with all the various iterations of the story result in simply awkward lines, like “I don’t drink … wine.” The result: All the cringe of What We Do in the Shadows, but without the comedy. Synetic should try new things, but if they are going to do more with the spoken word, they need better scripts, written with the same level of artistry with which their shows are choreographed. Nonetheless Irakli Kadsadve, as Renfield, Jonathan’s predecessor at the law firm and now the insane servitor of Dracula, does put on a wonderful performance—both verbally and physically—confined to a giant bell-shaped cage.
Kendra Rai’s costume design is very much for the spooky season. With the exception of Justin Bell’s Quincey, the Texas rancher seeking Lucy’s (Rachael Small) hand, even the good guys are dressed for goth night, though perhaps the wardrobes of Mina (Nutsa Tediashvili) and Lucy are a little too interchangeable. The top hat and tinted glasses Dracula dons once he gets to London seem to be a nod to Gary Oldman’s costume in the Coppola film.
Also like the Coppola rendition, there is an effort to link Count Dracula to Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century Voivode of Wallachia, who—as a member of the chivalric Order of the Dragon (from which the sobriquet “Dracula” was derived)—defended his corner of Christendom from the Muslim Ottoman Empire. (Pre-internet, City Paper had a cheeky film critic with the pseudonym of Vlad Tepes Jones who claimed to be a descendent.) This battle is the first of several thrillingly balletic fight scenes. Here, the Turkish army is armed with crescent-shaped blade weapons as Dracula fights them single-handedly with a sword whose cross-guard is so pronounced that the symbolism of religious war is obvious. But while Coppola’s film gives a backstory for how a “Defender of the Faith” turned to evil, pained at the very sight of a crucifix, this production gives little hint about how Vlad came to reject his faith to become a vampire other than the Devil (Bell) introducing him to his future brides in red.
Renata Loman’s gender-swapped Van Helsing is a welcome presence in a story that, in most tellings, relegates women to the role of ingenues and victims or bloodthirsty seductresses. But it makes one even more curious about the backstory of a 19th-century woman becoming a professor of medicine and vampire hunter.
As much fun as Dracula is in any iteration, the pre-curtain speech reveals that Synetic’s founders, Georgian immigrants, are well aware that it is a product of Victorian England’s xenophobia toward Eastern European immigrants. (Some scholars of the novel detect any number of anti-Semitic tropes, the blood-libel being only the most obvious.) Likewise there is a knotty conflation of violence with sexuality in this production that needs to be untangled. With Stoker’s work having decades ago entered the public domain, artists are free to pose such questions of Stoker’s original in the vein of deconstruction, but this Halloween, Synetic’s Dracula is bloody fun.
Synetic Theater’s Dracula, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili with script by Nathan Weinberger, runs through Nov. 6 in Crystal City. synetictheater.org. $20–$60.
This is one of two Dracula stage adaptations taking place in D.C. this season. Rorschach Theatre’s Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, plays at The Parks at Historic Walter Reed through Nov. 6.