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Central Works “Dracula’s Inquest” has a Second Act Worth Staying For

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Theatre Review of "Dracula’s Inquest" at Central Works, Berkeley, CA

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DRACULA’S INQUEST by Gary Graves at Central Works through August 17 is a harrowing 50 minutes with astonishing acting—that’s the second act. If you go, and I do urge you to go, do not leave at intermission no matter how much you want to.

It is set in an asylum where the stock characters of Dr. Seward, Jonathan Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, and Mina are being interrogated by Detective Sly to discover the truth of the murders of Harker’s employer, Lucy Westenra, and the disappearance of a titled foreign national from Transylvania. The Berkeley City Club’s Romanesque and Moorish architecture with an actual great hearth at one end of the playing space lends a better set than perhaps a designer could have devised. The curtains are overwrapped in another dirty, white tattered curtain that matches the madhouse dirty, white smocks of the inmates. They are as sooty as one would expect a Bedlamite to be.

Gary Graves’ second act is a masterpiece of terror. Jan Zvaifler’s direction keeps up a head-snapping pace on the long stage and never lets the tension down—and sustaining tension for an hour is a heroic task. Graves’ rhythms and their changes assist that task.

Award-winning sound designer Gregory Scharfpen’s accompaniment of sounds are jolting and integrated, not those of a haunted house, but matched and timed according to the moment, and the play would be much less without his audio imagination. That all the actors have spot-on dialects, at least to my ear, also aids the audial experience.

Megan Trout gives a stunning performance. Her lovely natural blonde Anglo-Saxon features have a trace of the vampiric in them. She contorts her body in the way that special effects need to do in the cinema. She moves from English Rose to frightening monster in a trice. Her subtlety in her business while not in focus is compelling and supportive—feeling her new fangs, taking dictation as the others speak (she was a stenographer before her incarceration), and always fully playing the implications of her character and situation. She is an award-winning actress, who, if anyone ever deserved an award, does for this performance.

Joe Estlack (who paired with Ms. Trout in Shotgun’s “Bonnie and Clyde” last season) plays Van Helsing with a controlled yet desperate energy and the presence of great actor.

Movie-star good-looking Joshua Schell plays Jonathan Harker, who, with his extended explanation of what mysterious, horrific violence occurred in the Carpathian mountains, brings the writings of Stoker-via-Graves into clear and terrible imagery in our mind’s eye. In the Greek plays, they never showed violence onstage but rather had a messenger come in and describe it—and I can’t imagine that this 2,500 year tradition has been done better. He has his turn in the latter half of the first act, yet his performance loses impact since the extended monologue requires close audience attention which by then is exhausted.

Now let’s talk about the first act. I saw Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’” I read the book. This was a tedious retelling of a story that I [would] venture most of us already know. Regrettably, John Flanagan* as Detective Sly is directed to be anything but; he is a “Lestrade” knock-off, an incredulous, dense Cockney with an attitude, who badgers the poor Dr. Seward—who is in a straight jacket--and sneers at his stories. And those are the only intentions he is allowed to enact. How much more interesting if he were a “sly,” intelligent and competent detective with a passion to reveal the truth and make the suspects admit their crime—not by beleaguering them, but with subtlety, as we see so often on the in all those British detective episodes.

For half the first act, Kenny Tol is under the same constraint. As Dr. Seward, he pleads for understanding in a tremulous voice with intermittent bouts of transcendent insanity a la the character Renfield (as in “the master is coming!”) who is, ironically, absent from this madhouse menagerie.

The first act is static in its staging and played in a declamatory fashion of old. It would be so much more interesting if it were more subtle and realistic to lay the groundwork for the masterful second act.

The title threw me. It’s really not an “inquest.” It is an “enquiry.” The Oxford Dictionary defines inquest as, “An inquiry by a coroner’s court into the cause of a death,”* and an enquiry as “the act of asking questions or collecting information about somebody/something,”** The definition also provides the spot-on example of, “The police are following several lines of enquiry.” These are the British usages, it occurs in England, and thus my quibble.

Why they didn’t play this in October baffles me. But the latter half is a tour-de-force of this theatre season that you should not miss, it is the 44th original premiere of this treasured Berkeley theatre company, and it plays through August 17.

Central Works
The Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant, Berkeley
(510) 558-1381
http://centralworks.org/

* http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/
** http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/

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