Comedic spin on horror succeeds

Despite new hits such as Twilight and True Blood, vampires are as old as the grave. But from ancient superstitions to Gothic horror, none are better known than Count Dracula, the horror icon of more than a century. Dracula has worn a dozen faces, from the tortured romantic to the lust-ridden ghoul. This weekend, the USC School of Theatre gives its own take.

“It’s not your mama’s Dracula,” said Caitlin Wachs, a senior majoring in theatre who plays Lucy Westenra. “It’s very close to the book — much closer than other adaptations.”

In many ways, this version predates many modern takes on the character. Based on the 1987 script by Mac Wellman, the play bypasses the tortured romance of the Francis Coppola film and the flourishes of Bela Lugosi, and presents a Dracula that is alluring, dangerous and detached from all humanity.

The play starts in Whitby Bay with Mina Murray (senior Jennica Hill) who recounts a strange night with her friend Lucy. Before the audience even knows what’s going on, the scene shifts to catch up with Jonathan Harker (senior Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx), who has gone mad in the Transylvanian wilderness after his encounter with a strange count.

Those familiar with the Bram Stoker novel will recognize the time-jumping narrative, which gives the play a fitting sense of unbalance. Throughout the play, the only constant is a trio of sultry vampire brides.

“It’s been fun to research Stoker and find out who Dracula actually is, as opposed to what I’ve been culturally introduced to as Dracula,” said Miya Folick, a senior majoring in theatre who plays the Count.

That’s right — Dracula is played by a woman. According to director Paul Backer, many renditions of Wellman’s play have made the same choice. Meanwhile, the Victorian novel Carmilla, which predates Dracula, was all about a lesbian vampire.

“Women as much as men possess a certain magnetism that can have a powerful effect over other people,” Folick said. “That’s what Dracula is — this strange allure and magnetism, along with this evil side. Those characteristics aren’t strictly male.”

In this play, Dracula is less a sultry zombie and more of a charismatic alien. Folick captures this with a stage presence that exists even farther outside of the play’s time line. Armed with a thick Transylvanian accent, she takes what could be a silly affectation and makes it a performance that disregards time.

Folick is far from the only highlight in the cast. Though billed as Jonathan Harker, Muñoz-Proulx plays a fusion of Harker and the crazed, insect-loving Renfield from the novel. Encapsulated in a monologue of epic proportions with a 10-person multiple-personality disorder, Muñoz-Proulx takes a crazy role and makes it both funny and pitiable.

As Lucy, Walchs has a role that has been both a floozy and a ditz. She is neither. Instead, Lucy is a fish out of water, caught in a repressed society and completely enthralled with the mysterious count who has just rolled in.

Hill becomes increasingly sinister as Mina, Joey Millin puts a batty, cowboyish spin on Van Helsing and Chase Anderson-Shaw is funny as the sexually frustrated Dr. John Seward.

The play takes great fun poking at Victorian conventions, many that were also poked at by the novel, including sex. From frat boy-approved physical stage comedy to a song about bonking far outside the context of runner’s fatigue, the play’s ribald antics add a hefty dose of fun and comedy.

The humor is a great mix of high and low comedy, with written nuances that channel the Coen brothers and random gags that take after The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There needs to be something to balance out the blood and craziness, after all. At the same time, the play’s wild turns show why people like vampires in the first place.

“Vampires are scary, but they also have things that we want — they live forever, they’re extremely powerful, they’re ambisexual and they can have anything they want,” Backer said.

This mix of horror and attraction keeps the play interesting. So do the costumes, which will have any steampunk fan slavering over the fitted coats and flashy skirts.

Sometimes the play gets a little out there — we might buy the vampire brides doing the bunny hop á la Rocky Horror, but Dracula joining in is almost too strange. With a narrative that pays little attention to linear progression, the play often leaves the audience to sit and merely absorb.

Although the ending comes like a gatecrash, it’s a bouncy ride back to beginning of the modern vampire mythos, and a refreshing shake-up of old themes.

“If people say, ‘That’s disturbing,’ I will be honored,” Muñoz-Proulx said.

True Blood fans and Buffy the Vampire Slayer veterans might not be disturbed, but they will be deliciously weirded out. With Halloween rustling closer, Dracula is a perfect welcome for the fall season. Playing from now until Oct. 3, the performance is also a great way to show off USC’s talent in ways that don’t involve football.