Hoopla

Theatre Cedar Rapids dripping in terror with 'Dracula'

Matthew James goes to the dark side to portray the dreaded bloodsucking vampire in “Dracula,” opening Friday (10/18) and continuing through Nov. 3 in the Grandon Studio at Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Studio Reserved photos)
Matthew James goes to the dark side to portray the dreaded bloodsucking vampire in “Dracula,” opening Friday (10/18) and continuing through Nov. 3 in the Grandon Studio at Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Studio Reserved photos)
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Matthew James will have to lay to rest his squeamishness about blood, since he’ll be pretty much drenched in it by the end of “Dracula,” opening this weekend in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ lower-level lair.

“Funny that I’m playing a man who’s obsessed with it,” he said. “Whenever there’s like ‘Walking Dead’ or anything where there’s a lot of blood, I’m always watching through my fingers.”

His life force will pulse through a relatively new adaptation of the classic vampire saga, being staged Friday (10/18) through Nov. 3 in TCR’s Grandon Studio.

Based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror story, this version was adapted by William McNulty, resident artist at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It premiered on that stage in 2009, and has been resurrected there each Halloween season.

It’s designed to be an immersive experience, with audience members sitting on all four sides of the Louisville stage. That translates easily to TCR’s intimate black-box theater, which will feature an alley configuration, with seating on both sides of the playing space.

As for the show itself, forget the campy, vampy “Dark Shadows,” “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” and “Love at First Bite.” This one conjures a dash of Frank Langella with the bite of “Nosferatu.”

“The author dictates in the front of the script — before it actually starts — that he doesn’t want you to pursue the sort of romantic notion of vampires. This needs to be a horror story and it also needs to avoid camp. He wants this to be as terrifying as possible,” said Kehry Anson Lane of Iowa City, guest director for the TCR production. “And I think that he hits that mark pretty solidly.”

However, the script doesn’t just feast on terror.

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“There’s levity in the show. There’s a little bit of romance there,” Lane said. “There’s something for everybody, but it does lean primarily on being sort of a psychological thriller.”

Because the Grandon space seats 90 at the most, the action is laid out at viewers’ feet.

“It’s both a blessing and a curse,” said James, 41, of Iowa City, a veteran of performing in close confines, “because you can definitely feel their participation in the show a lot more immediately. But you can also see the looks of boredom or them falling asleep — or whatever might happen — more easily as well.

“I think it reinforces that theater is nothing without an audience, and to a great deal, that’s why we do it — to tell the story for people. It just highlights that more.”

For Lane, the joy from breathing new life into the classic tale will come on opening night, when he sees it take wing.

“You let this creation run wild, and it’s no longer yours,” he said. “And just to see how it takes on a life of its own — there is something that happens when an audience is there for the first time.

“I love working with the actors. I love sculpting the show. I love the collaborative effort of trying different things — soliciting actors’ feedback or the assistant director’s feedback — often going off what they suggest, because they’re in the soup, as it were, where I was kind of on the outside.”

Even though Dracula can’t see his reflection, director Lane said he likes holding a mirror up to the production’s journey.

“To reflect back and look at where we started, and then where we ended up, is really satisfying,” he said. “The work itself is just really exciting.”

He said yes when TCR Artistic Director Angie Toomsen approached him about directing the show.

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“It falls exactly into what I believe to be my wheelhouse as a director,” Lane said. “The space also was a draw for me. I like small, intimate spaces. I like to work with a group of actors and I like to coach movement. I like to do fight choreography — I like that whole process, and it just was an intriguing script and story, done in a different kind of way.”

Without giving away too much, he hints that even in a small space, special effects can loom large.

“The aim is to do lots of nice gushing blood all night,” he said. “There might be some other little tricks up our sleeves. There will be enough to excite the audience. I don’t think we’re going to make anybody with a heart condition have a problem, but I think it should get under your skin and disturb you.”

Actor James is excited to see the effects come to fruition, crediting designer Joe Link as “the mastermind — a genius, really,” with some revolving illusions and other tricks, along with the expected stakes and crosses designed to protect the living from a man 500 years undead.

James sees his Dracula as a lonely figure. “How could you not be, to be the only one of your kind,” he said.

When vampire hunter Van Helsing says he doesn’t fear death, Dracula can’t make that same claim. Van Helsing has hope for an afterlife, but Dracula does not.

“If there is an afterlife, he has no hope for one,” James said. “Death, to him, is much more present, always.

“Van Helsing thinks his affairs are in order, and he knows where he’ll go,” Lane said.

For Dracula, “it’s just darkness and nothing,” James added. “That, I think, is terrifying to Dracula. I would think after living 500 years, that that would be terrifying. That’s a long time to live and to have everything that he has — all of his powers and wisdom and the ability to infiltrate people — it would be hard.”

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In the here and how, Dracula is using his powers of seduction over his powers to control his victims.

“While he has the ability to exert that control very easily, it’s much more fun to see people give it up, rather than (for him) to take it,” James said. “Part of the horror in it, too, is watching someone give that up. That’s what we’re trying to move toward. Instead of ‘You’re mine,’ it’s ‘You want to be mine.’”

That’s the delicious concept James is sinking his teeth into.

Get Out!

WHAT: “Dracula”

WHERE: Grandon Studio, lower level, Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE

WHEN: Friday (10/18) to Nov. 3; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Oct. 31, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: $27 adults, $12 students; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org/event/dracula/2019-10-18/

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