Dracula's Got No Bite at Theatre Memphis


This is not a musical. No ships hit icebergs. Nobody's king of the world.
  • This is not a musical. No ships hit icebergs. Nobody's king of the world.
Was that a wolf mask? A bat mask? A rat mask? Or a fly? Was it rubber?


Thoughts have been scattered since I sampled Sunday's matinee performance of Dracula at Theatre Memphis. To combat the glamour, I've given myself a mental challenge. I'll make it through this entire review without using the word "sucks." Even if it kills me.

Theatre Memphis' Dracula is all blood, no guts. Still, the lush production gets at least one key thing exactly right. A little well-placed magic goes a long way. Levitation illusions are also a fun way to evoke that steamy point on the temporal map where nineteenth-century spiritualism crashes headlong into the modern age — a time when psychoanalysts unlocked mysteries of the mind while performers like Harry Keller toured the globe performing self-decapitations and floating head tricks.

William McNulty's script leans into the vampire story's potential for Jacobean-style splatter and grand-guignol illusion. In doing so, it also opens a portal to the camp dimension. Like the hapless victims of a cruel prank, the cast and crew walk right through.

We've seen so many versions of Dracula since 1897, the year theater manager and pulp author Bram Stoker borrowed the memory of Vlad the Impaler, a brutal prince who butchered Turks and Bulgarians for "the preservation of Christianity," and transformed him into the shape-shifting prince of darkness we know today. We've seen demonic Draculas, sleazy Draculas, sexy Draculas, silly Draculas, groovy Draculas, disco Draculas, and outright campy Draculas. We've seen porny Draculas, super-villain Draculas and kid-friendly Draculas who sell breakfast cereal and teach us to count. The fatal flaw with this latest incarnation is that nobody seems to have made a hard, clear decision as to what kind of Dracula this Dracula wants to be.

Brian Everson's a trooper but hopelessly miscast in the title role. He's a go-to actor for light comic leads. Adjectives that come to mind include "able," "clever," and "nonthreatening." Outfitted with a long black wig, and dark, impaleresque facial hair, his Dracula looks like it might have wandered away from the set of  What We Do in the Shadows. He's adopted a broad Draculonian accent and acts in bold strokes more suitable to musical comedy or farce. The pomp and  effort makes this blood-craving ghoul funny when he should be scary and the wolf mask thing with "Safety Dance" hair doesn't help a bit.

Wolf-bat?  Flying rat-wolf?

Everson's got a sound supporting cast. Andrew Chandler is especially enjoyable as the bug and rat munching Renfield. Jason M. Spitzer's an attentive director, notable for the work he did to inject a much-needed dash of horror into Theatre Memphis' long-running holiday staple, A Christmas Carol. His Dracula is thoroughly rendered but never scary enough to qualify as horror, mysterious enough to function as suspense, or funny enough to be a comedy. It's not tricked out enough to be a magic show nor is there quite enough mayhem to call it theater of blood.

Memphis' namesake playhouse seems to be taking some risks these days but the best adjective I can think of for this show is "safe." As noted above, Dracula can be a lot of different things. But safe isn't one of them.

As the well-known horror classic unfolded in front of me, my mind wandered far and wide. At one point I started trying to think of all the fun spook season shows Theatre Memphis might have produced instead of this Dickensian Dracula. They've done such a fine job with monster musicals like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family. "So why wasn't I watching the American Psycho musical?," I wondered, not giving a fig if the flopped Brett Easton Ellis adaptation was ever a good idea or not. All that brutality, misogyny, and 1980's-style greed would at least be in line with contemporary anxieties.  For fresher takes on the old vampire story there's Little One, Cuddles, and Let The Right One In. There's an Evil Dead musical and if that's too far out, Theatre Memphis is more than equipped to explore the psychological terror in dramas like Frozen or The Pillowman.
With this list of things that might have been, I've got nothing left to say. So here we are at the end of the review and I didn't use "sucks" once. Or even bites. To borrow from Deadpool, that would have been lazy writing. Besides Theater Memphis' Dracula doesn't suck or bite. But it doesn't thrill or chill either. That blows.

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