Haunted hijinks

At Village Players' Dracula, the spook house is the real treat

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DOUG DEUCHLER

You may not need a seasonal mood enhancer. Perhaps you're already fully into the Halloween spirit. After all, "fright night" has become the second biggest holiday of the year. Some families decorate their yards more this month than they do at Christmas. But if you're in need a festive boost, when you go see Dracula at Village Players Theatre, the first production of their 45th season, allow yourself enough time to tour the free haunted Castle Dracula before curtain time.

The terrific spook house uses the lobby and much of a backstage area. I think young kids will especially enjoy this extra added attraction. Live performers and a myriad special effects provide a really good time before the show. The gang at V.P. has really thrown themselves into this extra bit of theater.

There's a feast spread out of fake severed limbs and entrails. Ghoulish maidens beckon you along the way. There's thunder and groaning and bats?#34;Oh, my! Once you find your seat safely inside the auditorium, the nearly 80-year-old vampire play on stage almost seems an anticlimax.

The Dracula legend, however, has lost none of its fascination. Since the immensely popular instant horror classic by Hamilton Deane and John F. Balderston first opened on Broadway in 1927, the bloodsucking Transylvanian has mesmerized generations in a multitude of sequels and spin-offs. Remember the Bela Lugosi-like counting Count on Sesame Street and the cocoa-laced kids' cereal called Count Chocula?

But, truth be told, although many folks still find this classic tale of good versus evil utterly irresistible, the venerable vampire drama now seems somewhat stodgy and stagy. In its weakest moments it's talkative when it should be spine-tingling. It's still fun, yet the play definitely shows its age.

In the 1920s, of course, no one had ever experienced such a fright of a show. The press claimed there were first-aid vans ready outside the theater and uniformed nurses in the aisles to minister to the fainthearted. No doubt much of this was pure hype. But for modern audiences, so accustomed to cinematic blood-letting, this vintage drawing room melodrama may seem pitifully anemic. It's often more creaky than creepy.

The challenge for contemporary productions of Dracula is to give the script a fresh spin, whether it be to play up the campy humor, to heighten the eroticism, or to bedazzle us with horrifying special effects and atmosphere. The plot is now so familiar, it's undoubtedly a significant challenge to pump new blood into it.

While this Village Players production takes few chances, as directed by Bill Brennan, the show achieves success with its unsettling, eerie mood and its amplification of the sinister tone that hangs over the remote English manor house setting. The acting is also solid and the pacing is smooth. For the most part, the intrigue and the mystery still work. While the three-act structure and some of the chatty episodes show its age, this Dracula still has plenty of bite.

Without a doubt, some of the most scary and bizarre moments belong to Phillip M. McFarlane. His performance as demented Renfield, the fly-eating madman, grows increasingly intense. Some restless middle school age kids seated near me were captivated whenever McFarlane came onstage.

In the title role, John Milewski is suave and imposing, but there could be more seductive, menacing sliminess. That's what made the bloodsucking Count the king of vampires. It's a tale, after all, of twisted passion and hypnotic control. Dracula, an undead villain, uses his supernatural powers to lure and prey on innocent victims so he can tap their blood and live forever.

Much of the challenge of playing Dracula, perhaps, is the persistent public memory of Lugosi as the vampire that hovers over any new interpretation of the role. Amazingly Lugosi, a relatively unknown Hungarian expatriate actor, knew so little English he learned his lines phonetically. His strange mannerisms and odd speech pattern provided his unique spin on the title role. Lugosi, of course, also played the vampire in the hokey yet groundbreaking 1931 film version.

Lucy Seward, the endangered heroine, is played by Colleen E. Miller, and her father is Kevin Bry. Bry is saddled with much of the background exposition yet does well keeping it flowing. Dan Aho is Lucy's ever faithful fiancÚ.

As Dr. Van Helsing, Peter Coombs seems perfect as the Dutch scientist versed in the supernatural who struggles to rescue Lucy from Count Dracula's clutches.

Dan Marco is solid as an often funny yet frustrated sanitarium attendant, and Margaret Prekelis is a maid who also comes under the vampire's control.

The set, designed by Lee Brasuell, is flexible to become several different locations. A number of female stagehands scurry in the semi-darkness altering the settings back and forth.

Suzanne Mann's late-1920s costumes are smartly executed. Lucy's deco garb and marcelled wig are fun. The fine lighting and sound design (from crickets chirping to wolves howling) are by Julie E. Ballard. Jazz-age music is used in the interludes.

Katy Schwalen is stage manager. Barbara Andrews, assistant stage manager, was also dialect coach. The accents were credible and consistent.

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