Encore Michigan

Dracula leaves audience hungry for more

Review January 23, 2016 Tanya Gazdik

Nerve’s Dracula is not your typical staid dinner theatre production. That’s for sure.

With the subtitle of “Appetite Must Be Fed,” the unusual, immersive production definitely leaves the audience with questions and definitely wanting more.

Photo by Rick Lieder

Photo by Rick Lieder

Theater goers who prefer to sit down in a comfy chair to gape should stay home. From the moment you step into the lobby of the theater, which is actually not a theater at all, there is the promise of something much more.

Dracula takes place in the Izzy, a former mercantile building in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood. There is no stage, and no fourth wall: the patrons are invited to sit at the table, while three vampires—terrifying Renfield, seductive Lucy, and Dracula himself—confront Jonathan Harker, played by Chris Jakob. At each performance, Jakob will decide whether Harker flees to safety, or stays to be consumed—and only he will know which way the action turns each night.

Award-winning writer/director Kathe Koja, winner of the Bram Stoker Award for her novel The Cipher, has adapted the Stoker classic as an immersive, site-specific event, and she believes that this tension makes the story more involving for the audience.

The tension begins immediately upon arriving at the theater. Audience members – who are treated as dinner guests and have been asked to wear black – wait in the vestibule, which becomes more and more crowded as more attendants arrive.

The production begins in what are essentially the storefront windows of the building. On one side, Lucy Westenra, played by the dashing Steve Xander Carson, prepares for the dinner by choosing attire and makeup, while abusing the servant who tries to assist. On the other side, a rabid Renfield, masterfully executed by Rachael Ahu Harbert, thrashes around in agony, as if trying to free himself from the straitjacket that restrains him. Only his fly collection offers him any solace.

Dracula is played by the delightfully androgynous Marisa Dluge, whose shaved head contrasts sharply with the makeup and women’s shoes she dons. Jakob is mesmerizing as Jonathan Harker, the hapless dinner guest who alternatives between fear and fascination with his hosts.

Lieder-Dracula_120116XThe audience/dinner guests are escorted from the vestibule into a lobby and then down a staircase, past curious scientific anatomy drawings and into a dungeon-like setting where a dinner table is set and Dracula sits on her throne at one end. There are four chairs at the table. Various audience members are instructed at various times to sit in the chairs, thus becoming honorary temporary cast members, albeit without lines of dialogue.

While not seated, audience members are free to wander around the dining room, perhaps moving closer in order to hear dialogue if necessary. The actors, particularly Renfield, seem to engage with every guest. The tension continues with audience members left to choose whether to stare at the characters in front of them, sometimes seeming to try to engage them, or to look away.

The equally creative costumes and performance installation were created by The Divine Iguana, with food stylings by Juniper Moore. The cliched images of Dracula are not to be found. Forget coffins, capes and fangs; think elaborate makeup and tight green lamé pants, which Lucy seems born to wear.

There is smoke, dim lighting, and sexual tension and mild violence. The audience spends most of the 50-minute performance standing. A lot is packed into that small window of time and it goes by quickly. That said, the intensity of the performance seems in direct proportion to the length of the play, so 50 minutes is plenty.

After the dinner party concludes, audience members are sternly told to “go!” by the brides (Miles Bond, Emily Fishman and Molly Schneider) and are ushered back up the stairs.

Before being dismissed, Koja thanks the attendees for coming to dinner and invites them to take a program and a fork, which includes a tag with a semi-clad torso on one side and the Nerve logo and “Appetite Must be Fed” on the other side. Clapping seems rude, as it would break the spell of the evening, but the participants do it anyway, to acknowledge the extraordinary experience they have been gifted with.

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