Houston's Alley Theatre is my favorite theatre company in town; each performance is beautifully directed and acted, and designed with a colorful precision that marks every production as memorable. This season the historic theater is undergoing renovations, so the company is holding court at University of Houston's Wortham Theatre, but Dracula, the first performance I've seen in the new digs, is without a doubt an Alley production.
Gregory Boyd directs "the original vampire play" from John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane, the first stage play to adapt Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1924. It's a smart, surprising take on the lore, more mystery than horror, taking place over three acts at Dr. Seward's sanatorium as he, Jonathan Harker and the famed Van Helsing attempt to discover who is tormenting Seward's daughter - and Harker's fiancée - Lucy. In this telling, Harker's first wife, Mina, has already capitulated to Count Dracula's seductions and has died her unhappy death, but now The Count turns his eyes to Harker's newest bride. All the while Seward's patient Renfield is growing increasingly restless with his diet of flies and spiders, and Lucy is less like herself every day.
So in many ways the "original vampire play" is something of a sequel to Stoker's novel, a fresh way to introduce a story we've all heard so many times before. But the most winning part of this particular production is the original set and costume design illustrated by Edward Gorey for the 1977 Broadway production (he nabbed a Tony for Best Costume Design for his efforts).
Seeing Gorey's illustrations writ large onstage is a breathtaking thing - can you imagine all of those meticulously unsettling little sketches in motion? It's stunning, and clever, and quite terribly creepy, and Boyd's direction fits beautifully with the Gorey aesthetic. The most surprising part of Boyd's Dracula is how playful the production is - never silly, never mocking, but sly and impish in a way most versions of this story will never be. The audience laughed in delight many times throughout the two hour show (with two 12-minute intermissions, moving everything along at a tidy pace), but this is not a play that disrespects its source material. Stoker is everywhere in Dracula, and like Gorey, who loved this story so much he devoted himself to recreating it visually, Boyd and the performers treat their material like a precious thing.
The Alley's usual stable of actors doesn't disappoint, with Chris Hutchison (Harker), Jeffrey Bean (Dr. Seward), James Black (Van Helsing) and Elizabeth Bunch (Lucy) all charming. Todd Waite and Melissa Pritchett are both quite adorable and somewhat hapless as Wells, a maid charged with watching Lucy and Martin, an attendant unhappily tasked with keeping Renfield under control. But the two brightest spots on stage are Renfield himself, played with loose-limbed, delirious aplomb by Jeremy Webb and, of course, Count Dracula. The becaped Transylvanian is played by relative Alley newcomer Jay Sullivan, and he gives an alarmingly sexy, urbane performance.
Dracula will run at the Wortham Theatre throughout the month, with the final performance taking place on November 2. Get your tickets here.