The room is perfect for American Repertory Theater and Theatre Jugend’s world premiere of “The Dead English,” an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” ART’s new space at the Church of the Ascension is rife with symbolism for this familiar tale of blood and lust.
(While the room feels right, it sounds wrong. The church’s acoustics are divine, but for choral arrangements and not four-piece, soft-rock combos and a cast of 12.)
But the show, an original chamber musical by local writers Steven E. Sitzman and Justin Karcher, with development from director Drew McCabe, is not so precise. It is a piece written with passion and loyalty, as McCabe was inspired by foreign vampire films and a love for Stoker’s iconic text. That this is one of many vampire texts being turned over these days is beside the point; this is a decidedly literary adaptation, and not merely another take on the sexy, lusty vampire youth.
That said, Anthony Alcocer is our Dracula, and he is sexy, lusty and young. Alcocer is comfortable in his own skin, which is put on display in captivating, distracting ways. While the look is there, his take on the mystifying, alluring, needy Dracula is cartoonish. Alcocer drips each word off his lips like we’re aching for them, and due in part to factors beyond his performance, we just don’t ache. It’s a strange irony, given his other attractions.
Karcher’s book is troubling in this way. It doesn’t do enough to establish an angle on Dracula’s exploits. He is one of those rich characters that exists between savior and villain. He can be both, but he can’t be neither. This slows down much of our evening, which is already a long one, clocking in at more than three hours.
Jacob Albarella and Steve Copps occasionally save this show from its own lethargy. The act one closer, “Another Drink Please,” where we meet Copps’ Dr. Van Helsing, is the show’s first true transfusion of narrative energy. Until that point, there are theatrical moments and moods – much, much mood – but little enticing action.
Where Albarella is engrossing as mental patient Renfield, giving his sinister psychology a textured and inviting spin, Copps lightens the mood with his Van Helsing. Copps is known for this kind of charming/devious louse, who ruffles feathers with shenanigans but rewarding fun.
McCabe takes Van Helsing perhaps too far, though, for his eccentricities confuse where the narrative fails. At times Copps employs a sarcasm that’s hardly fitting the time or place, and other times his comedy is a physical gag. It’s all a welcome jolt to the lifelessness that drags scenes down to the church basement, but sometimes it’s a little too silly for what’s going on here.
“Another Drink Please” is Sitzman’s strongest song. It’s immensely catchy, hummable and harmonic, and gives us reason to believe the second act will carry the torch Van Helsing’s toe-tapping arrival lights. Again, the music is well-written, arranged nicely with a four-piece ensemble that does a wonderful job playing it, but it leaves too many questions about the characters it serves, which is not a minor problem.
This is the biggest concern for the show: What, precisely, is the writers’ perspective? Their revivalist approach, honoring Stoker’s original text in careful, respectful ways, is fine, but then what do red Chuck Taylor sneakers add to that? How does humor pour from these resolutely young characters if not to connect dots to today’s sarcastic, sardonic youth? Isn’t that an obvious path to explore, given the themes of ironic eternity and unforgiving youth?
Karcher and Sitzman are going somewhere with this, and they should, given their love for the text and ability to write great music, but as it stands their adaptation has trouble finding its vein.
2 stars
What: “The Dead English”
Where: Through Nov. 10 in Church of the Ascension, North and Linwood
Presented by: American Repertory Theater of WNY and Theatre Jugend
Tickets: $20 general, $15 students, veterans