Center Repertory serves up deliciously campy Dracula!

Pat Craig
October 27, 2010

CENTER REPERTORY Company's Dracula is a bloody good time, any way you slice it.

And between the laughs, does it ever get sliced, diced, stabbed and occasionally laid to rest with a stake through its heart. This is a sassy, sexy and occasionally silly retelling of Bram Stoker's vampire tale, resembling very little the scary movie versions. Instead, it is a bright adult tale, rife with the fragrance of wolfsbane and passion, and eager to treat those grown-ups who come knocking in search of seasonal treats.

Although it's all in fun, the show may frighten youngsters, or, failing that, might lead to embarrassing questions about what that guy with the pointy teeth is doing to the lady in the nightgown. Older kids will discover the show all by themselves.

Despite what we've seen in the movies, Stoker's tale of the undead and Dracula, the king of beasties, was a well-rounded portrait of a vampire, with a fuller picture of what his bloodlust was all about, and perhaps what he dreamed about, in a bed of his native earth, when he came home from a long night of slurping the blood of others.

In Center Rep's version, Drac (Eugene Brancoveanu) is an undead playboy, 500 years old, wildly dressed and most often surrounded by or in command of beautiful young women (comparisons to other older playboys is purely incidental "...). Brancoveanu does a masterful job of creating a character that is both charming and intimidating, and just this side of being funny. Let's face it, there's a lot of baggage that comes with a character that's been played by everyone from Bela Lugosi to George Hamilton, and Brancoveanu is wonderfully able to make the character his own.

The comic heavy lifting is done by others in the cast, particularly Robert Sicular, who plays Professor Van Helsing, a character created to be hilarious. But Sicular never lets on that he is anything nothing but serious about his suitcase full of wolfsbane and the large wooden crosses he provides to fellow vampire busters Jonathan Harker (Thomas Gorrebeeck), Dr. Seward (Michael Wiles) and Butterworth (Sam Leichter), all of whom are quite funny in their own right. Butterworth is the foil and caretaker for psychiatric mental patient Renfield (Michael Barrett Austin), who spends most of the time running around the house/laboratory with a cage over his face as an elaborate means of escaping custody.

The damsels in distress, i.e., the women who are the objects of Dracula's bloodlust and Harker and Seward's affections, played delightfully by Madeline H.D. Brown and Kendra Lee Oberhauser, who move from innocents to seductresses beautifully.

Dracula unfolds on a wonderfully creepy set by Kim A. Tolman. Its effect is enhanced by Kurt Landisman's lights and Cliff Caruthers' sound design. The actors' looks are set by costume designer Victoria Livingston-Hall and wigs by Judy Disbrow.

The piece is directed by Michael Butler with aplomb and tongue planted firmly in cheek.


Dracula is slick, sensual

Clinton Stark
October 29, 2010

Adaptations of Dracula, be they for stage, film or television, are as old as time itself; eternal entertainment. Center REP brings its own unique style and flair with a slick and sensual presentation now playing on the Lesher stage. If Tim Burton were to direct the theater production, this is how it would look — shadow-filled off kilter gothic set, fanciful costumes, heaving bosoms, and, of course, stakes and hammers for all! It’s vastly entertaining — not in the classic sense, but in a modern, re-imaged way. And did I mention there is just a wee bit of Transylvania smoke here and there?

In a bit of inspired casting, San Francisco Opera favorite and Romanian born (true that) Eugene Brancoveanu plays the 500-year old Count himself. He captures the mysterious persona perfectly. “Welcome to my home…” he utters in deep baritone, dressed in fantastical costume as smoke slides across the castle floor. From menacing and vulnerable to seductive and charming, Brancoveanu assumes the multiple identities convincingly. It’s a highlight of the production.

Soon innocent women are being bitten in the middle of the night, clothing is shed, and the seduction begins. Madeline H.D. Brown as Lucy and Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Mina portray their descent into darkness with pasty-faced zeal. Their chemistry in earlier scenes, singing and bantering about love, works well and we know their innocence is not for long.

Other key roles are strong as well including Michael Barrett Austin as Renfield, a mentally disturbed asylum inmate, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Jonathan Harker the wide-eyed accountant and husband to be, and Robert Sicular as a deliciously over-the-top Professor Van Helsing.

The set (Kim A. Tolman) and sound (Cliff Caruthers) ultimately power the production. With four tombstone-like, off-kilter walls, the set is bathed in blues and greens. Red trees in the foreground, and darker ones in the back cast shadows and enrapture us with an almost fun-house aesthetic. With a uni-stage design, the action is fluid with no time-consuming set changes required. Being a committed fan of horror, I loved the constant sense of dread and impending shock created by the pulsing soundtrack, with occasional thunderous jolts.

Costumes (Victoria Livingston-Hall) are once again stellar. As in She Loves Me, Center REP is able to create lavish texture that transports us in time. Never for a moment does the illusion of Transylvania break.

Now about that smoke. This is the most amount of dry ice I’ve ever — ever — seen in one production. During the climax there is so much of it floating towards the audience that we soon realize the entire Lesher Theatre has become a spook-house. And we are among the sitting dead, squinting through it to watch the final seen. Any more of it and oxygen masks would need to drop from overhead compartments. It was a thriller for me. For others it might be over-the-top (and a breathing challenge).

The second act couldn’t quite live up to the pacing and build-up of the first which features sexy Vampire Vixens, grand appearances by Dracula in multiple guises, and Dr. Seward (Michael Wiles) trying to maintain order in the asylum. Once Dracula is on the run, and the crosses, stakes and hammers, and torches come out, it’s hard to mistake this for anything but a fun romp across medieval landscapes and dungeons. Occasionally it can look somewhat kludgy; the angled set and walkways makes this a challenge for the actors no doubt.

Dracula delivers in just about every way we’d expect; it’s seductively crafted, beautiful to watch, and the performances are energetic, never too serious. Think of it as Tim Burton style entertainment for the stage.

Dracula at Center REP is a Halloween treat to sink your teeth in

Kedar K. Adour
October 28, 2010

There are seasonal stage adaptations at Christmas of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and it seems only fair that at Halloween Dracula should come out of the woodwork/coffin. He does just that as he treads the boards in Center Rep’s mesmerizing staging of John Balderston and Hamilton Deane’s stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel directed in ghoulish high camp by the always-inventive Michael Butler.

Don’t expect to see the spine-chilling shenanigans of the movie Dracula starring Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier as his nemesis Prof. Van Helsing because Butler has elected to perform this staging with tongue-in-cheek. If you saw Count Dracula played by Frank Langella who was nominated for a Tony in the 1977 Broadway production strut his stuff on a Edward Gorey’s award winning white and black set with exceptional special effects you might have reservations about attending Center Rep’s offering. Forget it if you did, as I did, and get thee hence for a performance that you can sink your teeth in, but you will have to compete with Count Dracula.

Butler is aided and abetted by production staffs that are the best in the Bay area. The amazing multi-area nonsensical creepy, intimidating set is perfect for a horror story. Scenic designer Kim A Tolman, I’m sure after consultation with Butler, has enough entrance and exit points that would be fit for two or three French farces, and they are all used. Lighting, Kurt Landisman,and Cliff Caruthers, lighting and sound designers have a field day with special effects. Properties artisan Seren Helday deserves individual accolade for devising a method to create blood letting without spilling a drop.

Eugene Brancoveanu, a 2005-2006 San Francisco Opera Center Adler Fellow who “is admired for his virile baritone voice and distinguished stage presence” invests the role with the right amount of Gothic panache. Panache? Did I mention that in this version of Dracula he is a playboy returning from a 500-year state of undead to woo an English lassie Mina Murray (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) who is sort of engaged to ineffectual Jonathan Harker (Thomas Gorreboeck) who was unsuspectingly responsible for getting the evil Count to Whitby, England in the 1800s.

When Dracula fails to suck the blood from Mina, he goes for second best and does the pusillanimous deed to her best friend Lucy Westenra (Madeline H. D. Brown) and strange things begin to happen in Whitby. The ladies just happen to staying in the living quarters of Dr. Seward (Michael Wiles) who runs an insane asylum. Locked up in that asylum is Renfield who is forever escaping often performing dastardly deeds for Count Dracula.

.Just for the record, Eugene Brancoveanu is a solid believable Count Dracula but it is Michael Barret Austin as Renfield, the insane fly eater who walks on sheer walls, wins the audience’s approbation. Robert Sicular as Prof. Van Helsing , in mutton-chop sideburns and tweed jacket (fine costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall) is sort of a deus-ex-machina as he leads the determined band armed with garlic, crosses and a wooden stack for the heart eventually putting Dracula to permanent sleep of the real dead.

The vampire vixens (Emma Goldin, Taylor Jones, Kate Jopson) that spring from a trap door down stage center are great and ready for trick or treating on Halloween Night.Special effects usurp the admiration normally garnered by the acting however, the broad acting styles are perfect for a show that is a admixture of high camp and frightening consequences. The ultimate scene of Mina’s self-sacrifice is a brilliant and another salute to the special effects. Don’t miss this show. Running time about 2 hours with intermission.

Kedar K Adour, MD

Center REP's Dracula is a treat for the senses

Elizabeth Warnimont
The Benicia Herald
November 1, 2010

The season of witches, ghosts and goblins may be officially behind us, but don’t let that keep you from checking out Center Repertory Company’s spectacular production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, adapted for the stage by John Balderston and Hamilton Deane, at the Lesher Performing Arts Center in Walnut Creek through Nov. 20.

Center Rep has put together an extraordinary show, complete with artful set elements, top-notch acting and costuming, and all the surprise, tenderness and passion a great drama can offer. The show may be too scary for young children, but not in any haunted-house, leap-out-at-you kind of way. This Dracula is sophisticated, complex and thought-provoking, much as the 19th-century novelist likely intended.

The first scene opens on an intriguing set, designed by award-winning scenic designer Kim A. Tolman. Asymmetrical walls appear leaning to one side, some even tilted slightly backward, all converging on a sloping walkway leading up to a castle door and a comparatively small platform beneath a pair of oversized windows. Between the skewed perspective of the walls and the subtle shadings of their color, the mood is distinctly eerie.

Further enhancing that not-of-this-world feel, the first character to appear onstage comes creeping down from the top of one wall like a giant reptile, head first, with slow, deliberate steps, before disappearing into the darkness.

Eugene Brancoveanu, a Romanian-born actor and operatic baritone, makes his Center Rep debut in the title role. Brancoveanu brings a fantastic power to the part of the mysterious count, making good use of his highly trained voice, refined acting ability and strong physical presence. Director Michael Butler envisioned a Dracula who was “charismatic, sexy and romantic at first, and then (to) become scary.” Brancoveanu fills that bill, almost unrecognizable as he transforms from the ghostly, eccentric “Vlad Tepes” of Transylvania (a nod to the historical figure on whom the character of Dracula was originally based, according to Butler) to the youthful and vibrant Count Dracula taking in the life, so to speak, on the streets of London.

.All of the key roles in the production are well performed. Thomas Gorrebeeck is Jonathan, a young and newly betrothed English lawyer who is called upon to provide legal services to a solitary landholder in a remote area of Transylvania. Gorrebeeck is the picture of the eager young professional, excited about the marriage and career ahead of him and willing to pursue this bizarre assignment, even after an unsettling carriage ride on his first night. He writes to his beloved of the strange howlings he heard along the way, what seemed like “hundreds of red eyes” in the darkness, and how the carriage driver pressed his “coal-black horses” on through the darkness with a fierce intensity, offering for explanation only that “the dead travel fast.”

Jonathan’s fiancée Mina, played by Kendra Lee Oberhauser, is doubly concerned when Jonathan’s letter arrives on a particularly ominous date:

“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?”

Of course, Mina has plenty of cause for concern, as her fiancé faces nightly grilling by his creepy host, an encounter with some strange and seductive vixens (Emma Goldin, Taylor Jones and Kate Jopson), and lonely days not seeing or hearing a single human soul.

Actors Equity Association member Michael Wiles plays Dr. Seward, director of a London sanitarium and suitor to Mina’s close friend Lucy (Madeline H.D. Brown). Wiles aptly portrays the unassuming gentleman, capable in his profession but utterly clueless and meek when it comes to courting the flirtatious Lucy. The doctor finds himself equally ill-equipped to tackle the challenge of the strange illness that befalls his love soon after Count Dracula’s arrival in the city.

As Lucy’s condition becomes more worrisome, Seward enlists the help of a more experienced and worldly associate, Professor Van Helsing (Equity actor Robert Sicular). Sicular is a confident Van Helsing, solid and commanding, with the even temperament of a doctor-hero who will ultimately save the day. Recognizing the patient’s syndrome, the professor immediately suspects the awful truth, but hesitates to share his knowledge for fear that he will not be taken seriously.

Brown is a delightful Lucy, playfully teasing her friend in the early part of the story, but she is truly at her dramatic best later on, when the innocent young girl is transformed by otherworldly forces into a tantalizing creature of the night.

There is another essential character in the play who is introduced almost as an aside. Renfield, played by Equity actor Michael Barrett Austin, initially appears as a patient in Dr. Seward’s asylum exhibiting overtly insane behavior, so odd as to provide almost comic relief. As the plot thickens, however, the crazed rantings of this lunatic begin to take on much more sober meaning. Austin masters the role of the defeated prisoner who is forced to recall his previous terror as the events of his past begin repeating themselves all around him.

Artful use of props, lighting and special effects only add to the allure of this stellar production. It is indeed unique — “not the 55th version of Dracula,” as Brancoveanu describes it. It is a fresh and imaginative treat for the senses.

After 80 years, this story of Transylvanian Terror is resurrected once again and this new resurrection is one of the best in the Bay Area!

Charles Jarrett
November 1, 2010

Center REPertory's Director Michael Butler unveils an exquisitely dramatic, artfully staged and brilliantly choreographed adaptation of Brian Stokers chilling novel, Dracula. Once again, adjectives are hard to find that adequately describe this outstanding production, outstanding in every single aspect!

The Center REPertory Company has become a virtual powerhouse of excellence in professional regional theatrical production and this superbly crafted production is another example of Butler's excellent stewardship. Dracula is of course a perfect choice to be opening at the end of October, at the time of the year when the earth is settling into its more deathly pallor. Dracula, a chilling mystery thriller, has intrigued directors and audiences alike, generation after generation, for over 80 years, with a story that never dies, only slumbers awaiting another director's resurrection.

The subject matter of countless films and plays, Count Dracula once again journeys from his ancestral home in Transylvania to London in 1897, courtesy of information gathered and real estate acquired for him by way of a young solicitor, Jonathan Harker. Dracula's undisclosed purpose in moving to the metropolitan capital of England apparently lies chiefly in his finding an unlimited source of victims and their life-sustaining blood.

While still visiting the count in Transylvania, Harker becomes a virtual prisoner in Dracula's castle and is nearly driven insane by the happenings while there, in a region adjacent to Romania. He manages to escape and returns to London months later in poor but recovering health.

While in London, Lucy Westenra, whose father is the doctor in charge of an English sanitarium, has become a victim of a mysterious illness. This illness demonstrates itself as a gradually deteriorating state of health, accompanied by a terrible lethargy, a pale complexion and two mysterious red centered puncture wounds on her neck.

Her father contacts Dr. Van Helsing, his old professor in Amsterdam, a specialist in unique illnesses and it is the doctor's opinion that Lucy is the victim of a vampire. Lucy's best friend is Mina Murray, fiancée of Jonathan Harker. Mina eventually becomes an unwitting pawn in Dracula's plans to destroy Dr. Van Helsing and Dr. Seward. A patient in the hospital, a mad- man by the name of Renfield, becomes a confidant of Dracula, whom Dracula grooms to become a future vampire.

The story is full of bloodletting and terrifying experiences for all concerned - characters in the story and the audience as well. Will they corner and finally contain this Carpathian monster? You will have to see the play, if you do not know its outcome.

Director Butler has managed to elicit the talents of Eugene Brancoveanu (who was born in Romania and has been a major opera singer and actor for over 15 years), to play Dracula. Brancoveanu is superlative in his multidimensional role as the old Count Dracula in Transylvania, the newly reconstituted Dracula in London and the vampire who can scale walls to reach his intended victims.

Add to this the excellent talent of Madeline H.D. Brown as Lucy Westenra; Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Mina Murray; Thomas Gorrebeeck as Jonathan Harker; Michael Wiles as Dr. Seward and Robert Sicular as Professor Van Helsing, and you have a stellar cast who delivers this Dracula in high dramatic and persuasive form.

Michael Barrett Austin is outstanding in his portrayal of Renfield. Taylor Jones, Kate Jopson and Emma Goldin play the alluring wives of Dracula, titled Vampire Vixens in this production. The dramatic set designed by Kim A. Tolman adds measurably to the sinister setting of this drama as does the lighting by Kurt Landisman. The costumes designed by Victoria Livingston-Hall are awe-inspiring in their beauty and imagination.

A Bloody Good Production of Dracula

Richard Connema
November 30, 2010

John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane's Dracula recently played at The Lesher Center for the Arts. It was is an impish, sensual and even stylish retelling of Bram Stoker's vampire story.

I grew up liking this interesting character and was scared to death at age six watching Bela Lugosi in the Tod Browning movie version of Dracula. I saw the 1977 Broadway production of the play in 1977 with Frank Langella as well as the London production starring Terence Stamp. The last time I saw the non-musical version was with Jeremy Brett in the title role. Several years ago I saw Dracula, the Musical. Yep, I am a Dracula fan.

Director Michael Butler's production was very chic and nicely overly melodramatic, thanks to the great portrayal of the vampire by opera sensation and Broadway veteran Eugene Brancoveanu. He played Dracula as the urbane and theatrical but acceptable character you would see in London society of the time. You would never guess that he loved "to drink your blood."

Dracula was surrounded by women who looked like they could have been in Macbeth, which added to the creepiness of the melodrama. Robert Sicular was excellent as Professor Van Helsing, with crosses and wolfsbane in his suitcase. He really took the character seriously, and I loved his melodramatic acting.

Thomas Gorrebeeck made a handsome Jonathan Harker with his Victorian style of acting, while Michael Wiles as Dr. Seward and Sam Leichter as Butterworth gave good performances. Michael Barrett Austin was outstanding as mental patient Renfield. He not only acted the part of a lunatic, but looked the part with a strange cage over this face. He certainly had a way with flies.

Madeline H.D. Brown and Kendra Lee Oberhauser with perfect English accents were enchanting as the objects of Dracula's bloodlust. They easily and marvelously morphed from naive to enchantress.

Kim A. Tolman designed a wonderful creepy set that looked like a German Expressionist film of the 1920s. Lighting by Kurt Landisman and Cliff Caruthers' sound enhanced the production. Costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall and wigs by Judy Disbrow were superbly Victorian.