Though I’ve never considered myself a huge fan of Halloween, this past weekend I had the pleasure of attending a performance of The Oswego Players’ rendition of Dracula. It was a cool autumn afternoon when I entered the Players’ theater, but by the time the curtain closed on the show, I had felt a more powerful chill that knows no season.
I was already familiar with the story of Dracula. Most of us are. Through countless retellings of the classic vampire story by author Bram Stoker, Count Dracula has become a star, albeit a dark one, of our popular culture. Just the mention of his name stirs up vivid images, most of them unsettling. So why did I find The Oswego Players’ version of the horror story so enjoyable? It started the moment I stepped foot in their theater.
Music that I can only describe as New Age gone sinister drew my attention toward the stage, its curtain closed. The curtain’s deep red color served as a reminder of the leading role blood would play in the show. As I settled into my seat, a gentleman clad in old English attire strolled onto the stage. I thought the play had begun, unannounced; instead it was the show’s director, Troy Pepper, providing an unusual welcome that sent the first chill up my spine.
In the play’s opening minutes, Dracula’s familiar story was offered. Set in the library of a sanatorium, we are introduced to its proprietor, Dr. Seward (Kevin Colvin), who keeps watch over an array of mentally ill patients. But the doctor’s more immediate concern is for his daughter, Lucy (Jessie Dobrynski), who has taken ill with a strange illness. Lucy’s husband-to-be, Jonathan Harker (Patrick A. Carman), and her father have exhausted their options to help the young woman, so Dr. Seward calls on his friend, Abraham Van Helsing (Derek Potocki), a Dutch professor well-schooled in metaphysics.
As the dialogue continues we learn the details of Lucy’s strange illness: nightly bad dreams, episodes of her falling into a trance-like behavior, and two telltale red circles on her neck. To add to the bewildering circumstances, a patient at the sanatorium, Renfield (Norman Berlin III) has gone mad, making it difficult for his attendant (Matthew Fleming) to control him. Even Lucy’s nurse maid, (Alex Taylor), suddenly loses her loyalty to the Seward family.
One character remains to be introduced to the audience, the sanatorium’s neighbor, Count Dracula (Pablo I. Mendoza). The Count we first meet seems to only have concern for poor Lucy. Originally from Transylvania, he explains his recent move to London as due to not having many “opportunities to serve.” We, of course, know what lies beneath the Count’s altruism, but somehow we want to believe his story, just like we want to believe that all mankind is good.
It was the play’s strong cast that let me believe that and other fantastic aspects of this story. All the actors are accomplished performers, having had roles in other Oswego Player productions and various CNY theater troupes. Each had his or her memorable moments during Dracula: Madman Renfield’s bloodcurdling screams bouncing off the walls of the theater, his attendant’s hilarious attempts to keep him from jumping out windows, Lucy’s desperate pleas to be rescued from the Count’s spell, the nurse maid’s easy falling under that spell, Dr. Seward’s determination to uncover clues, Jonathan’s undying love, Van Helsing’s quick-witted plans, and the Count’s sinister switch from caring neighbor to creepy stalker. Each of their piece of the story burns on in my memory.
The Players were supported by some excellent technical wizardry—yes, it felt like magic to be fooled into forgetting I was in Oswego, New York. For the duration of the play, the lights creating foggy shadows and the sounds that brought werewolf howls uncomfortably close made it seem like I was far from home. Tom Fazzio and Ryan Benson Smith are to be congratulated on their amazing artistry. Even during a few necessary extended set changes, the music and lighting held my attention as I anticipated what I would see when the curtain again opened. Hats off to Stage Manager, Morgan Fazzio. With her guidance, the entire play moved effortlessly from the opening curtain to the climatic ending.
Finally, it was Troy Pepper’s direction that brought Dracula to life. Pepper must have realized he would be competing with award-winning Broadway and Hollywood versions of the show, so he wisely focused on the human side of this otherworldly story. By focusing on the person-to-person drama of this famous thriller, he breathes new life into what frightens us. Under Pepper’s care, I got to see—no, I got to feel the story’s message of good versus evil, of the battle between heaven and hell. I found myself on my feet rejoicing in the satisfying ending to this tragic story I thought I knew so well. Only the magic of theater can do that.
Dracula continues this weekend, September 14, 15 and 16, at the Frances Marion Brown Theater at the Fort Ontario Complex in Oswego. Show times vary. Contact their box office at (315) 343-5138 or online at www.oswegoplayers.org to reserve your tickets.