June 19, 2024

“Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy” Opens Princeton Summer Theater; Kate Hamill’s Layered Script Inspires Strong Performances, Vivid Production

“DRACULA: A FEMINIST REVENGE FANTASY”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy.” Written by Kate Hamill and directed by Eliana Cohen-Orth, the play runs through June 30 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left: a Western version of Dr. Van Helsing (Sophie Falvey) strategizes with Dr. Seward (Teddy Feig), Jonathan Harker (Destine Harrison-Williams), and Mina Harker (Meghana Kumar) about ways to defeat the titular vampire. (Photo by John Venegas Juarez)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Dr. Van Helsing is a feisty American woman in a cowboy hat. Be sure to address her as “Doctor,” not “Madam.” It is for readers and audiences to guess who emerges victorious when this Dr. Van Helsing confronts Dracula.

Playwright Kate Hamill, who has brought a contemporary perspective to theatrical adaptations of several classic novels, loosely adapts and satirizes the Bram Stoker original, pitting the titular Transylvanian vampire against a Van Helsing that seems to be patterned after Annie Oakley (among other characters and archetypes). It is a fun but risky concept that could have come off as gimmicky — but it brilliantly succeeds.

Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy was premiered in 2020 by Classic Stage Company (Hamill played the part of Renfield). The year of the play’s debut is worth noting, because many themes that are examined are conspicuously of our sociopolitical present.

Princeton Summer Theater is opening its season with Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy. Eliana Cohen-Orth directs a vivid production whose talented cast is a mixture of professional actors and Princeton University students.

Before we even hear the pre-performance announcements, we see a character onstage: Renfield (portrayed by Katie Hameetman). As eerie, atmospheric music (realized by Sound Designer Alyssa Gil-Pujols) plays in the background, Renfield obsessively scribbles words all over a chalkboard, eventually writing sideways and upside down when she runs out of space.

Eventually we realize that what Renfield has been scribbling is a perversion of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in Earth … crush those who drain our lives away from us.” The pseudo-religious words suggest the zeal of a cult.

A bit later Renfield delivers a monologue in which she manically warns, “I am his most beloved child … you’re going to be in trouble when Our Father comes!” Hameetman delivers the speech with wide-eyed intensity.

Part of the reason the script succeeds is that Hamill judiciously waits for the right moments in which to depart from Stoker’s general plot. As with the original novel, the main action begins with lawyer Jonathan Harker journeying to assist Dracula with a mysterious legal transaction.

Before Harker (whom Destine Harrison-Williams portrays with the right mixture of earnest innocence and a snappish authority) leaves, he says goodbye to his pregnant wife, Mina (who is given a dignified, no-nonsense demeanor by Meghana Kumar). Mina resents being left at home, and accuses Jonathan of being overprotective. She secures a promise that he will write to her about his adventures.

Arriving at Dracula’s castle, Harker is astonished by the Count’s physical strength. Jonathan soon finds himself having dinner with Dracula (Jordan Kilgore), who invites him to “look upon” his “brides” Drusilla (Kelly Brosnan) and Marilla (Faith Wangermann). The respectable Harker protests that he is married.

Sneeringly praising Jonathan’s “modern manners,” Dracula deftly extracts details about Jonathan’s life, including Mina’s name, whereabouts, and friendship with Dracula’s eventual victim, Lucy Westenra (Meg Moynahan, who captures that character’s worldliness, and restless resentment at being constrained by societal expectations).

Later, as happens in the novel, Harker is attacked by Drusilla and Marilla. In staging Dracula’s brides, Cohen-Orth — aided by Set Designer Yoshi Tanokura and Lighting Designer Hayley Garcia Parnell (assisted by Ariane Adcroft) — demonstrates knowledge of simple but effective techniques that makes thrillers and horror stories work. We are able to identify the threat of the vampires’ presence by the appearance of their silhouettes behind a curtain.

As the female vampire duo Brosnan and Wangermann are, by turns, suitably pouty and lascivious. Both actors adeptly fill multiple roles that include a maid and asylum attendant.

Kilgore’s performance as Dracula brings everything that the part requires: menacing charm and a domineering sneer. The portrayal is what one might expect for the character, but that is appropriate. This play’s version of Van Helsing is contrary to the character’s archetype (at least in the novel), so it is sensible to anchor the audience with a comparatively typical depiction of the vampire.

This provides a perfect foil for Sophie Falvey’s tour de force performance as Van Helsing. The gender of the vampire hunter has been changed from the original in previous adaptations across a variety of media (including a 2020 series coproduced by the BBC and Netflix). However, Hamill gives the character a distinct, idiosyncratic personality that affords an actor wide latitude for an exuberant performance. Falvey takes full advantage of this.

It is remarked above that the reason this play works is that Hamill waits for the right moments in which to depart from Stoker’s novel. One of the major points in which this happens is in the characterization of Van Helsing. Hamill’s version of the doctor already has been compared to Annie Oakley, but it also incorporates elements of iconoclastic heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and the title character from Doctor Who. Van Helsing is characterized by knowledge of phenomena beyond traditional scientific understanding — and a willingness to consider possible truths behind legends that have been shared in oral traditions.

This places her in direct conflict not just with Dracula, but with Dr. Seward (Teddy Feig), the asylum keeper who is Lucy’s fiancé. Seward is well-intentioned but unable to think past traditional scientific understanding. A man of his time, he also has a traditional mindset about gender, so naturally he bristles at Van Helsing’s breezy readiness to take charge. (It little helps that saving Lucy is the common goal.)

Feig’s performance, especially his body language, captures the character’s mixture of resentment at ceding the case, and desperation to save his fiancé at any cost. Falvey and Feig play off of each other well, and the scenes in which their characters argue are fun to watch.

In compliance with a request that Hamill publishes in the script, Costume Designer Bex Jones outfits the cast in a palette of whites and creams, so that it is starkly noticeable when blood is spilled. There is an added benefit that the color white often symbolizes innocence, plenty of which is lost as this story unfolds. It also can tie in with a bridal motif that runs through the story (Lucy, Seward’s fiancé, risks becoming a “bride” of Dracula). The costumes do not seem specific to the Victorian era, but they are formal enough to evoke the past (an appropriate exception is Van Helsing, who is given beige slacks).

There is a considerable amount of physical action in this play. Cohen-Orth handles this well, often using the aisles to open up space for swift movement.

Hamill notably retains one of Stoker’s key plot points: vampires have to be invited into a place to enter it. This is apropos, because a central theme of the play has to do with what we let in. For all of the silver crucifixes, the fundamental battle between Dracula and Van Helsing is one of influence.

Dracula’s main weapon is control — the ability to bend others to his will. (In an effort to avoid a spoiler, the theatrical mechanics of how this works will not be described, but it is illustrated quite effectively in the second act — a credit both to the acting and the sound design.) In one sense, Dracula and Van Helsing are two sides of a coin, because Van Helsing rivals Jonathan for influence over Mina, a reluctant recruit in the doctor’s war against Dracula.

It is observed above that Renfield’s behavior suggests the member of a cult. That in effect is what Dracula has, and Renfield sees herself as its most loyal member. Dracula is seen by his followers and victims — whose personalities change as they bend to his will — as a liberator, but in fact upholds traditional societal constraints and mores. Possible political allegories are obvious.

The sociopolitical commentary in Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy is, well, biting — and manages to probe a number of issues. However, it does not come off as something that has been imposed on the story. It is organic to the story and characters. Part of what makes this play successful is that it simply puts vastly opposing characters in a room and lets their personalities collide.
As an actor Kate Hamill knows how to offer fertile creative ground to theatermakers, and Princeton Summer Theater makes the most of this, resulting in a strong start to their season.

“Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through June 30. For tickets, show times, and further information visit princetonsummertheater.org/dracula.