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Cool Vampire, Totally 

ART's deliciously villainous 'Dracula' is right in time for Halloween

That was awesome, dude."

The young man sitting behind me—a student, I inferred—was unambiguously enthusiastic. We in the audience at the UA Marroney Theatre were still trying to collect ourselves after experiencing a most amazing Dracula.

I'd pretty much have to agree with his assessment. It was awesome.

Capitalizing on the ubiquitous presence of vampires these days, as well as the time of year in which ghosts and ghouls venture from their nether regions and traipse about, director Brent Gibbs has stirred up a big ol' pot of theatrical witches' brew that's eerily entertaining and skillfully seductive. Full of special effects, original music and creepy characters, the show is great fun and impressively put together.

A production of the Arizona Repertory Theatre, the UA theater department's professional training troupe, the play is based on Bram Stoker's1897 novel, Dracula. William McNulty's adaptation introduces us to the original character—not the one often corrupted by movies and cartoons. McNulty, a resident artist at Actors Theatre of Louisville, revives the essence of Stoker's creepy Count and the tale of his horrifying infiltration into the Anglo-Saxon world.

In the opening scene we find ourselves in an asylum, where the worlds of the sane and insane intersect in such a way that it's hard to determine which is which. Dr. Seward (Javan Nelson), who runs the place, is grief-stricken at the unexplained sudden illness and death of his love, Mina (Megan Davis). Now another young woman, Lucy (Brenna Wagner), the fiancée of Jonathan Harker (M. Wellington Reasor), has developed similar symptoms and Seward has asked his colleague, Dr. Abram Van Helsing (Kevin Black), to England to weigh in on the disturbing events.

Hailing from Eastern Europe, where such horrors are not unfamiliar, Dr. Van Helsing suspects that his friends are being drawn into a dark and dangerous world. When he learns that a Count Dracula has recently moved into the area—and notices dual marks on Lucy's neck—he knows that he and his friends are in big trouble.

Gibbs' Dracula is less bloody than one might suppose. The director recognizes that the story is really about power, especially the power of the mind, so frequently the battleground for the war between Dark and Light and between various versions of reality. Because Gibbs understands that these forces manifest in the physical world, he and his crew have created a sensuously threatening one.

The audience's discomfort is fueled not so much by the presence of guts and gore but by the fear of the unknown, by upended expectations and by the always effective element of surprise. The drama is malicious, malignant and menacing.

Robert Don Mower as Dracula is indeed a menacing presence (despite an unfortunate wig that looks like a Michael Jackson reject). He's not so much ghoulish as he is just plain creepy. He's always there, lurking, relentless in his need to nourish himself not only with the blood of his victims but with his total possession of them. In one of the most unusual fight scenes you'll ever see, Mower's Dracula matches wills with Dr. Van Helsing. The doctor brandishes a cross and reads magical verses that make him sound like he's speaking in tongues. The battle is intense and violent and they never touch each other. Brilliant.

Gibbs has really challenged his design students, requiring them to craft a world that can be manipulated in all kinds of ways. A globe rotates without an actor's touch; doors mysteriously open and close; and pyrotechnics that rarely—if ever—are seen on Tucson stages abound. The actors' voices are subject to disturbing distortions.

The students likely contributed plenty of their own blood as they designed and engineered these spectacular effects. But their tricks and treats are not gratuitous, and they never seem technically ridiculous, as, say, the hovering helicopter in Miss Saigon does. The effects are absolutely integral to the creation of this threatening world—and to our reaction to it.

With such sophisticated design execution, it's easy to forget that the actors are students still in training. This is a very solid cast, but some of the players still need vocal work: Their voices are either jarringly unpleasant or lack the strength and vitality to deliver their characters.

As Dr. Van Helsing, Black gives a fine performance (and thoughtfully carries a crucifix and holy water in his briefcase). Praise also goes to Michelle Luz as housekeeper Margaret Sullivan, who undergoes a most frightening transformation as she is consumed by Dracula's will. And Connor Kesserling does a terrific job in the critical role of the inmate Renfield, who negotiates the troubling and often incoherent worlds of what we insist—and what we fear—is real.

Peter Beudert's set design works beautifully with Alling Langin's lighting and Matt Marcus' sound. Patrick Holt's period costumes are first-rate.

This is a big, complicated production and ART has pulled it off with apparent ease. It delights our senses and seduces our minds. It's high drama with a light touch, intriguing, creative and utterly engaging.

It's awesome, dude.

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