Encore Michigan

Penny Seats ‘Dracula’ benefits from Zettelmaier’s triple play

Review October 25, 2019 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Riffing on great public-domain characters is a smart angle to galvanize an audience’s attention and sell tickets. Casual theatre goers, after all, gravitate to what they know.

Playwright Joe Zettelmaier has struck this chord a few times in his catalogue: The Gravedigger, which is a riff on Frankenstein; Ichabod, a variation on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Penny Seats is currently bringing Dr. Seward’s Dracula to audiences in time for Halloween.

This play is a bit of a story within a story. Dr. Seward has been through hell, his great love killed by a maniac, the blood drained from her body. He sees her as ghostly apparition, and has regular conversations with her. He has survived a stay in a sanitarium and is living on his own in 1895 London. And he is visited several times by Bram Stoker, a writer and editor at a publishing house, who is trying to weave a story worth selling to the public based on Seward’s journals about a fiend who draws people into his control and consumes his victims’ blood.

So, we are in the day-to-day of Seward and Stoker before Stoker’s Dracula is ever written. Meantime, as Seward is trying to regain his wits after a harrowing experience in the hospital where he spent considerable time with the fly-eating nutter Renfield we know from Stoker’s classic, we see Seward try to piece together what happened and who the “monster” was who killed Lucy and dozens of others.

Zettelmaier is deft in his writing, as well as his research, and connection building from the original text from Stoker. And not only did he write and direct the work, but owing to a medical emergency with one of the actors, he stepped into the role of Stoker 48 hours before the show opened. A triple play.

Jeffrey Miller is quite manic and desperate as Dr. Seward without allowing his performance to become too “Johnny-one-note.” He is a mess, yes, with a six-month old open wound in his side, but he establishes a useful meter to his characterization. Jonathan Davidson plays Louis Carlysle, a local constable/inspector who is investigating the murders, and has a bond with Seward that certainly has interesting layers that will make the audience ponder its the nature. David Collins plays “The Strange Man” who is key to understanding the identity of the real “Dracula.” Allyson Miko plays Emily Covington who becomes Lucy in Stoker’s story yet to be written.

Zettelmaier is doing a public service by giving us fresh takes and fresh angles on established stories. He has a play called Ebeneezer, for example, which picks up the Dickens Scrooge character 15 years after he is visited by the three spirits.

The Bella Lugosi Dracula movie feels a bit tired in 2019. And even the musical Dracula is feeling a bit worn. But Zettelmaier’s Dracula is a fresh angle on the story that has kids and adults still dressing up in a cape and fangs more than a century after the story debuted.

This production is being performed at The Stone Chalet Inn Bed & Breakfast & Event Center on Washtenaw Ave. in Ann Arbor. There is an intimate theater space in the facility that proves to be just right for this small-scale play.

Week of 11/18/2019

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