When asked about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one will often think of the written novel, a movie they have seen, or even its recent rise in pop culture. However, I know I will from now on think of the Centenary Stage Company’s interpretation of the famed thriller. It is the only version I’ve seen in keeping with the original format of the work—a series of letters, diaries, and newspaper clippings. The production was unique and perfect for both audiences that had already read the book and for those who had not. Personally, I was a third of the way through Dracula when I saw the play and found it appealing because of its similarity to the book, but also found it easily understandable and interesting in parts I had not yet read. This accessible and faithful format was a product of the script, which was written by the director, Charles Morey.
The beautifully executed format and outstanding script were not the only factors playing in the performance’s favor; the sets, costumes, and make-up alone created a dark and whimsical atmosphere that transported me and the rest of the crowd to Victorian London, to Transylvania, and to the many different locations within them. Dracula himself transforms from an ancient man with long gray locks to a young and handsome individual, and he walks taller than all others in his high-heeled riding boots. His brides, the three sisters, wear the same boots as they walk with deadly passion in wedding dresses stained with the dirt of their graves. Even the less dramatic attire of the Englishmen added a lot to the performance, from respected Dr. Seward with his fine suit and carefully trimmed beard to Mina Harker in her elegant, stiff gown so common at the time.
The set, a broken stone wall with three archways and always moving doors, seemed to change with the lights and the scenes. Projections just behind the wall showed a full moon that glowed red and bats that flew at the audience looking for blood. As the doors behind the arches moved, vampires appeared and vanished in seconds before reappearing on the darkly lit balcony at the top of castle Dracula. Each effect only further immersed the audience in the story.
Despite the many other factors that contributed to the Dracula experience, it was the actors more than anything that brought the story to life. They truly encapsulated their roles. When Mina was hypnotized by Van Helsing, her voice became an evil rasp as she screamed and gasped as though she was choking on her words and enjoying every moment of it. At the start of the play, when John Harker first met the odd, friendly old man that was Dracula, the atmosphere was thick with awkwardness and amusement at their attempts to converse. Every expression and hesitation in speech was purposeful and added something to the scene. Renfield, completely reimagined from the original book, possessed a crazy and wild energy that, combined with his almost professor-like tone during monologues, made the audience start laughing as soon as he stepped foot on the stage. All the actors—and especially him—utilized body language that told its own story in perfect unison with the script.
I knew that any Centenary production would not disappoint, but Dracula went above and beyond my expectations. Not every effect was perfect; there were earsplitting fake gunshots and screams that seemed unnecessary to me. But overall, the play hit every note well. If I had to rate it out of ten, I would rate it at 9.6. In my mental ranking of Centenary performances, it is second only to The Mousetrap, which was the first murder mystery I ever saw and therefore has a bit of an unfair advantage.
Centenary University, where the stage company is housed, is located in Hackettstown, NJ. It is a 30-40 minute drive from Morris Knolls, but the time is well worth it. I have been going to plays there for over five years and have never been disappointed. Personally, I like it better than Broadway, and it is less expensive. Dracula’s last performance is on October 28th, but the company has a great set of shows lined up after that. Apples in Winter will be its next play, starting November 9th and ending November 18th. I hope to see you there.