We learn from failure, not from success!" wrote Bram Stoker in Dracula. If Irving's ICT MainStage heeds that advice, director Bruce R. Coleman's staging of the 1897 vampire saga, adapted by Seattle playwright Steven Dietz, will not have been in vain. Or vein.
So much is right in the beginning of the show, it's a shame when it starts falling apart. This production is like sitting down in a new restaurant to a tantalizing hors d'oeuvre, then getting an entrée of tepid hash followed by a chunk of coal for dessert. It all seemed so promising with that first bite.
The appetizer in Dracula is a thrilling opening sequence, a savagely choreographed combat scene set among the Huns in 15th-century Rumania. Clacking and twirling their fighting sticks, actors in blood-red period costumes leap and roll in a violent ballet (choreographed by Oscar Steele). Lights go down with the audience atwitter at the action. Lights come up in late 19th-century London in the bedroom of Lucy and Mina, giggly Victorians who practice-kiss each other as they prattle on about their boyfriends, Dr. Seward, who runs the nearby asylum, and Mr. Harker, a solicitor off on a journey to the Carpathian Mountains to see you-know-who.
Dracula continues through November 17 at ICT MainStage, Dupree Theater, Irving Arts Center, 972-252-2787.
Pygmalion continues through November 25 at Theatre Three, 214-871-3300.
Dietz's script and Coleman's show go kerflooey soon after the Hun party. The girls chatter too much, and the remainder of the long first act unfolds in a jumble of confusing exposition and flashbacks. The title character doesn't even appear until 30 minutes in, and by then we're so over it, we don't care. Count Dracula may be undead, but he's in a play that expires before he arrives.
If only the script and the performances were as fresh and stylish as Coleman's production design (he also did set and costumes). For live theater to work as it should, all the elements should blend seamlessly to create one multilayered piece of art. For Dracula, Coleman, one of Dallas theater's busiest director-designers, has paid lavish attention to the visuals at the expense of the speaking parts.
Sound, lights, scenery, costumes—heating up the homoerotic subtext, most of the men go shirtless, even on foggy London nights—all are rendered beautifully. Coleman's scenic design is a marvel. The wide proscenium stage at the Dupree Theater is symmetrically framed by towering black and white cutouts of hunky telamones supporting the second level of the set on their beefy shoulders. Claret-colored velvet curtains under the figures' outstretched arms part to reveal Lucy's bed, draped in black linens, and the dank cell in Seward's asylum where one of Drac's acolytes, the crazed inmate Renfield, snatches flies from the air and gobbles them like candy.
The cast is as visually stunning as the scenery. This Dracula skews so young that many of the actors are too green perhaps to know what they're doing wrong.
Recent SMU music grad Nikolai David Kiselov, in his ICT debut, is an underwhelming Count Dracula. His speaking voice is slight, his diction garbled. At the end of phrases he adds an open-mouthed hiss that's more comic than scary. He's Jim Carrey imitating Gary Oldman.
The role of Drac-hunter Abraham Van Helsing is minimized in the Dietz version—for much of the first act, we're not really sure who he is. Greg Jackson, another ICT first-timer, strikes a handsome profile in the role, with his shoulder-length, partly braided blond locks. But he's another low-talker with a tendency to singsong lines too rapidly to comprehend.
As Dr. Seward, Shane Hamlin shouts words in a raspy croak. Playing Harker, William Lanier, also an ICT newcomer, strengthens his so-so performance by doing most of it wearing only tight trousers and shiny boots. His torso sports a six-pack, but his speaking voice is flabby.
Julie Reinagel and Esther Selgrath are pretty as Lucy and Mina, the girls who get sucked in and sucked on by the caped invader, but only Reinagel throws herself into the part vocally and physically. Under a silky mane of white-blond ringlets, Reinagel wafts dreamily into Drac's arms. She's also lovely in the opening of the second act, a dance piece for Lucy, Harker and Renfield choreographed by Sergio Garcia to Imogen Heap's haunting "Hide and Seek."
Coleman's take on Dracula has a hipster goth-rock sensuality to it that only actor John de los Santos, playing Renfield, really goes to town with. As a dancer, de los Santos has been the go-to guy for solos and partnering in lots of musicals (he was the seductive carny in the dream ballet in Lyric's recent Carousel). Playing the bug-chomping inmate, he's such a strong presence, the whole focus of the play shifts to him. That's all right. We need a point of interest in an overlong script that bogs down in boring speeches. Whenever he's in a scene, bathing his face in rat's blood or asking Dr. Seward, "May I smell you?," de los Santos is devilish fun. Compared to him, the rest of the ensemble just seems bloodless.
The cast of Dracula could benefit from lessons in "the divine gift of articulate speech" with Professor Henry Higgins. George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is back on the boards again, this time at Theatre Three, where it speaks loudly and carries some small shtick.
Pretty smart of director Jac Alder to cast a real-life diction expert as the prof. Actor Gregory Lush is a teacher of the Fitzmaurice technique, which addresses breathing, pronunciation and dialects in vocal training. Maybe that's why, for once, most everyone in the T3 cast enunciates clearly and in distinctly different but believable English accents.
Helps that Lush is also a darn fine actor and kind of a cutie. He's younger than most Henrys, but that only makes the character's thwarted flirtation with Eliza Doolittle more plausible.
As Eliza, Danielle Pickard, a former T3 intern, gives a kittenish comic vulnerability to the Cockney flower girl trying to better herself by learning to "tawk proper." She's adorable in the scene where Eliza strives to impress Henry's mother (the wonderful Terry McCracken) and some upper-class twits with her newfound conversational skills, only to give herself away by exclaiming, "Not bloody loikly!"
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The ultimate makeover story (and indictment of bourgeois middle-class values), Pygmalion is better known as Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. But even without tunes, it's easy to grow accustomed to the pace of the straight comic play.
Not so easy, however, to excuse the accent on ugly costumes and grungy hairpieces in T3's production. Eliza's topped with fake yellow Mary Pickford curls. McCracken's gray wig has been plucked from the skull of Mrs. Norman Bates.
Bruce Coleman and Michael Robinson collaborated on costumes and hair designs for the show, so blame them equally for the ill-fitting suits and garish sew-manship. Robinson's shown a tacky penchant for feathers in every production he's designed at this theater, so it's a good guess he came up with Mrs. Higgins' boa in the final scene. Around her shoulders is wrapped a brown horror that resembles a long string of dead owls.
If only once Theatre Three could get everything right...sigh. Wouldn't that be loverly?