Vampires have thrilled us humans for centuries, but where did this attraction begin? Was it with Bram Stoker’s chilling 1897 horror novel, Dracula, or did it stem from the 15th century real-life Vlad III, prince of Wallachia (now the southern region of Romania), with the family seal of the “Dracul” or dragon, who had a diabolical penchant for impaling all who fell into his disfavor? Either way, our fascination with vampires has transcended the centuries.
Stoker’s novel was first adapted for the stage by Hamilton Deane in 1924, then revised by John L. Balderston in 1927. The play opened at London’s Little Theatre in July 1927 before it came to Broadway at the Fulton Theatre in October 1927 with Bela Lugosi in the title role. Dracula was adapted for film in 1931 starring Lugosi. In 1977, a Broadway revival starred Frank Langella, who then took on the menacing count in the 1979 movie.
A production of Dracula is currently playing at Vail Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead. How fitting for a play with such a haunting theme to be presented in this gothic styled venue replete with red and black décor.
The play is set in a sanitarium outside London run by Dr. John Seward and his wife, Mary. The turmoil begins with the introduction of Renfield, a lunatic patient with an overwhelming need to devour insects for their blood. Renfield would rather feed on insects than the alternative—the blood of human victims. He begs Seward to send him to an insane asylum so he will be under constant guard, in the hopes of saving his very soul from the evil grasp of Dracula.
The Sewards are distressed by a mysterious illness that has taken hold of their daughter, Lucy, who is inexplicably frail and anemic. They call upon their friend Professor Van Helsing to help find the cause and a cure for Lucy before it’s too late. Van Helsing soon discovers the ominous root of her mysterious illness and becomes immersed in a battle of good versus evil.
Mark Swinson (Renfield) is riveting as a man in agony and frightened of being forced into the world of the undead. Chloe Keil (Lucy) is appropriately frail in act one, then takes a turn toward the dark side in act two when, under the spell of Dracula, she must hunt victims for their blood to keep her alive. Charles Calabrese (Van Helsing) is the voice of reason in the midst of the horror wrought upon the Sewards. It is of note that Calabrese has taken on directorial duties, accompanied by co-director Adrienne Pellegrino, who plays Anne, a maid and the bit of humor in this otherwise haunting production. Alicia James and Glen J. Beck as the Sewards are devoted parents of Lucy, starting from a place of innocence before taking on the daunting challenge against evil as they valiantly fight to save their daughter. Greg Halverson, swathed in black cloak, is the evil Count Dracula. He should be applauded for his chilling interpretation of the the title character, approaching but never falling into the melodramatic.
At the finale, Calabrese addresses the audience directly as he warns, “When you arrive home tonight and see a face at the window, remember that these things do exist.” We leave the theater with a sense of foreboding that accompanies us home and back to our reality.
For a hauntingly good time, catch Dracula at Vail Leavitt Music Hall, 18 Peconic Avenue, Riverhead, through Sunday, November 3.