Vampire, by Edvard Munch
Dracula: A Radio Play
Based on the Novel by Bram Stoker
Originally Adapted for Radio by Orson Welles & John Houseman
New Adaptation by Hannah Rae Montgomery & Jenni Page-White
Executive producer Dan Gediman
Sound design by Sue Zizza
Directed by Robert Barry Fleming
A review by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents are copyright © 2020, by Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
Radio plays are not as in vogue as they were back in the golden age of radio. When they are done today, they are usually referred to as “audio dramas” and honestly, they can be as well-polished as any blockbuster Hollywood film (for some impressive modern examples, search out The Sandman, Alien: Out Of The Shadows, or The X Files: Cold Cases, among many others, on Audible.com, for comparison).
But back in the day, before the ubiquity of TV, radio dramas were the manner in which most of the free world got their entertainment. Everything from Superman to The Shadow, Gunsmoke to Sherlock Holmes, Amos & Andy to The Saint, the list of dramatic performances on the radio is endless. Although it has continued in popularity through the years across the Pond with such BBC Radio classics as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Earth Search, it is largely relegated to the audiobook industry here in the United States.
A true radio play/audio drama is normally not just the reading of a narrative, like most audiobooks today by a single performer reading a book’s unabridged text. The radio play is fully cast, with immersive sound effects and an appropriate musical score. The use of a narrator is limited, sometimes eliminated altogether, with the use of creative dialogue from the characters to create the vision in the listener’s mind.
Probably the most revered classic of the style would be Orson Welles’ famous broadcast of The War Of The Worlds. It was done in such a realistic, faux-documentary style that it actually fooled viewers into believing it was really happening, causing a nationwide panic. And Welles was also instrumental in bringing another literary classic to radio along with co-writer John Housemen: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Now, in this bizarre year of 2020 we find ourselves in a world where live theater is dark, mainstream movies are postponing release for at least a year, and television series have not been able to resume filming due to an unprecedented worldwide pandemic that seems to show no signs of abating. It is in this environment that Actors Theatre of Louisville has gone back to the golden age of radio and resurrected that Welles/Houseman DRACULA script, with a few updates by Hannah Rae Montgomery and Jenni Page-White, resulting in a fun throwback to a simpler time. The perfect atmosphere for taking in this new radio play is with the lights out and candles lit, and a fire burning in the fireplace.
Performed in a style much more akin to the old radio plays and less like the modern audio dramas, this version is much more faithful to Stoker’s novel than ATL’s usual annual Dracula performance. It does rely a bit too much on narration than character dialogue than I would have liked, but it conforms to the epistolary style of the novel pretty closely so it’s a nitpick I can forgive.
We are introduced to the tale, and guided throughout, by the narration of one Doctor Seward (Neill Robertson), proprietor of a mental hospital and a man who’s fiancé Lucy (Angelica Santiago) is being victimized by the titular vampire.
Seward refers us frequently to other documentary evidence of his tale. First, the diary of Jonathan Harker (Brandon Meeks), in which Harker tells the harrowing story of traveling to Transylvania to handle a real estate sale from the mysterious Count Dracula (Peter Hargrave), only to become ensnared in the sanguinary Count’s evil plans.
We then move to the ship’s log of the doomed Demeter, where the ship’s Captain (Meeks again) recounts the horrifying ordeal befalling the ship’s crew in the travel from Transylvania to England, that does not end well for the Demeter.
After that we get to the story proper, moving from newspaper cuttings to letters and diary entries from Lucy and her friend (and Harker’s fiancé) Mina (Molly Murk). The legendary vampire’s evil plans are unveiled and he meets his match when Seward summons renowned vampire hunter Van Helsing (Rebecca Hirota) to the rescue.
As a whole, it was an enjoyable experience. I was particularly impressed with Robertson, Meeks’s, and Hirota’s performances. Robertson’s British accent was unflappable and as the character that probably spoke the most through the proceedings, his energy level never dropped. Meeks really induced sympathy for his character’s plight and his section was the one I found most riveting. It was a clever choice to make Van Helsing a woman this time out (I’ve seen a few Dracula scripts which suggested this option, but this is the first time I’ve seen it done) and it works.
Hargraves does an acceptable Dracula, but his Transylvanian accent comes and goes. The cast as a whole makes the thing work, but it’s especially impressive that everyone involved plays multiple characters and I was convinced there were three times as many performers: very good work with the characterizations.
I confess I am not familiar with the original Welles/Houseman script, but I did notice some moments that seemed a bit more modern and that I would ascribe to Montgomery and Page-White’s new adaptation. This is especially noticeable in a climactic moment that seems to be taken straight from the Francis Ford Coppola film adaptation!
The complete package comes off more as a multi-performance audiobook adaptation than an actual radio play, mostly due to the heavy use of narration instead of dialogue, and the sound mix is not as immersive as one might be used to when compared to most modern audio dramas. But the musical score does continue throughout and it succeeds in adding to the ambiance of the whole piece.
This is an acceptable substitute for live theater while we deal with the times we’re in, and also a nice intro to anyone unfamiliar with the “theater of the mind” that is radio theater. Give it a shot!
If you do intend to light those candles, Actors Theatre is offering a “Dracula At Home” accessory kit to heighten the immersive experience: https://bit.ly/DraculaAtHome You probably want to order it ahead of time.
Starring Peter Hargrave, Rebecca Hirota, Brandon Meeks, Mollie Murk, Neill Robertson, and Angelica Santiago.
Dracula: A Radio Play
Available through online streaming through November 1, 2020
Actors Theatre Direct
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 13 years. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Cla rksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. In 2019 he launched Theatre Reprise with Jeremy Guitterez. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.