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Suck on This

Clinton E. McLaughlin

Neck-rophilia: Arion Alston snacks on Marcia Savarese in 'Dracula.'

Sunnyvale Summer Rep plays fast and loose with 'Dracula'

By Karen Wilson

With the unstoppable popularity of Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat chronicles, fans of the genre sometimes lose sight of the classic novel by Bram Stoker that started the whole blood-sucking craze.

The California Theatre Center's Sunnyvale Summer Rep '97 has put together a primarily by-the-book production of the stage version of Stoker's Dracula. Despite a few standout performances, this Dracula offers a theater experience that will neither fill you with supernatural powers nor drain your life's blood.

A man of science who diagnoses mental imbalances in others, Dr. John Seward (Mark Phillips) finds himself losing a few screws of his own when he can't identify the cause of the strange death of his beloved, Lucy Westenra (Keite Davis), and the similarly mysterious ailments of his friends Jonathan (Nathan Lacey) and Mina Harker (Marcia Savarese). With the help of Dr. Van Helsing (Will Huddleston), Seward and Harker link the "brain fevers" to the 500-year-old vampire Count Dracula (Arion Alston).

Stoker creates a sweeping landscape of romantic gothic intrigue that, even in the hands of the most skilled actors, can turn cheesily comic at any moment. The California Theatre Center cast labors valiantly to maintain an air of suspense, but when Alston's Dracula sweeps upon the stage in his classic crimson-lined cape, complete with upstanding collar, the production veers inexorably toward camp. For Dracula purists, this direction may seem sacrilegious, but the scene in which Alston plays up his character's propensity for "renewal" and "nighttime visits" makes for some good laughs.

Al Blair, as insane-asylum inmate Renfield, also walks the fine line between scary and silly with a deft hand. In one breath, Blair can rhapsodize on the advantages of eating insects for dinner and dread with utter sincerity the coming of his "master."

Even with some fine performances and a detailed but not cluttered set, this Dracula is never truly memorable. The ever-changing British accents and occasional over-the-top hysteria detract from the generally competent performances. When the sanctity of all the souls of London gets laid on the line, the play strains what little credibility a vampire story can have. Seward's inner battle of science vs. superstition is much richer than the outward struggle of Christianity vs. Dracula-as-the-devil-incarnate, and it doesn't receive the attention it deserves.

Dracula plays July 17, 22-23 and 25 at 8pm at the Sunnyvale Community Theatre. Tickets are $12-$18. (408/720-0873)

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