The Dracula legend has no place unexplored; from Max Shreck's bat-eared Nosferatu to Robert Pattinson's silvery emo boy, from Roman Polanski to Mel Brooks. The famous count is even a muppet! So it would be shocking if Alchemist's Theatre broke any new ground in the second show in their "Year of Fear," but this play is unexpectedly quirky. Penned and directed by Aaron Kopec, it begins very close to Bram Stoker's original novel, including a long epistolary opening, and a visit to the undead count's Carpathian castle, complete with standard-issue superstitious peasants with heavy accents ("Have you ever felt the cold grape of fear?").
Somewhere in the middle of act one, Kopec veers off in a direction so campy and transgressive that the show becomes a strange hybrid of vaudeville and 60s underground comix. The single set is painted like a comic-book version of 18th century etchings, and the action unfolds as straightforwardly as a burlesque review. But this Dracula doesn't reproduce the stereotypical gender roles of yesteryear. Casting women in the male roles of authority-figures Doctors Seward and Van Helsing, parading ample displays of female flesh, and adding significant lesbian overtones, Kopec gives us a feminist Django Unchained: both exploitive and empowering.
Kurtis Witzlsteiner plays the title role stylishly in full Nosferatu mode, shaven-headed and cadaverous, inhaling his victim's life-essence greedily, as if breathing through every pore. When he bites, it's the classic rear-back-and-chomp move; designed to amuse, not scare. But he's not the center of the play. The real heroine is Mina, a statuesque beauty and ultimate object of Dracula's desire. Anna Figlesthaler plays her with remarkable dignity and verve, as if she's in a much classier show. As her erstwhile suitor and real-estate broker Jonathan, Randall T. Anderson wields an impeccable English accent. He holds his own against the three brides of Dracula, who swan around in quasi-medieval negligees, trying to "turn" him, until he accidentally, hilariously, creates holy water by saying grace over his prison rations. And it's probably intentional that Harold Loeffler-Bell's Renfield, Dracula's mad minion, seems less stressed out than all the other characters. He even delivers a little speech about the madness of conventional life.
The serious gender-bending really kicks in when Beth Lewinski arrives as the vampire hunter Van Helsing. Pale and intense, you can easily believe she's spent years in crypts and old libraries, studying the ways of the restless undead. She brings a smattering Freudian psychology to her investigation, droolingly questioning Mina and her saucy freind Lucy (played by an over-the-top Liz Whitford) about their mutual carnal interest. At one point they virtually tear off Mina' s clothes, ostensibly to prepare her for her midnight appointment with the thirsty count. But though opportunities abound for the nubile actresses to writhe, moan, and hiss in various skimpy outfits, women are not helpless victims; even the normally-inarticulate brides have a chance to express their identities.
The second act is full of goofs, smirky asides, and more than a couple of eyebrow-raising "oh, really?" moments. But it's not boring. It's all more silly than creepy, and a lot of fun. And, as we pass through Milwaukee's gothic period, full of gray sky, spidery black trees, and slush, a campy burlesque Dracula isn't a bad thing.
Bram Stoker's Dracula
adapted and directed by Aaron Kopec
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through March 16
The Alchemist Theatre
2569 S. Kinnickinnick Avenue
Tickets are $17 online or at the door