LaShondra Hood in Dracula, A Feminist Revenge Fantasy. Photo: Jon Cherry
Dracula, A Feminist Revenge Fantasy
By Kate Hamill, based loosely on the novel by Bram Stoker
Directed by Jennifer Pennington
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits, All rights reserved.
A Feminist Revenge Fantasy? Think about it for more than a minute and it makes perfect sense given the patriarchal control of women baked into the very concept of Dracula, but more than a few people are turned off by the concept.
Truth is, this is structurally not unfaithful to the Hamilton Deane play, revised by the American writer John L. Balderston. Bram Stoker’s original novel is an epistolary format so the play is the REAL template for the popular understanding of this story. Jonathan Harker (Justin Jackson) goes to Transylvania, Count Dracula (Nick Jordan) comes to England to seduce first Lucy Westenra (Brittany “BeeBee” Patillo), and then Mina, Harker’s wife (Lipica Shah), and then Doctor Van Helsing LaShondra Hood) arrives to lead the battle against the most powerful vampire in history.
For nearly 40 years ATL has given us Dracula in the fall. For several years it was a solid but academic take, and then about halfway through, the Artistic Director at that time, Marc Masterson, tasked long-time Van Helsing actor and director William McNulty with reconfiguring the Dean/Balderston script to actually be scary. Surround sound effects, monsters running almost across the audience’s laps, a generous supply of fake blood, and a record amount of dry ice made for a terrifically spooky, haunted house production designed to make the audience scream. It was enormously popular; the kind of perennial production that people revisited each October because they knew exactly what they would experience. A sacred cow of familiar entertainment.
2 years of pandemic and racial and social reckoning have emboldened Actors Theatre Executive Artistic Director Rober Barry Fleming in his resolve to make changes, and now we have this revisionist script by Kate Hamill, directed by local theatre artist Jennifer Pennington, and featuring six local actors in the cast. Controversy about ATL’s historical reluctance to hire Louisville-based actors makes this Dracula something to talk about, as does the overturning of some of the traditional patriarchal aspects of the script.
Things start off as we expect. Harker goes to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania and the Count comes to London, all on Katelin Ashcraft’s minimalist set. Dracula’s two companions are played by Louisville-based Dara Jade Tiller and Alanna Darby are suitably creepy but Nick Jordan’s performance as the title character is distinct from the swaggering macho of previous years; a smaller yet still suave and almost supercilious comic rendering that is delightfully satirical, having fun with the most stereotypical tropes of the iconic vampire. Jordan is very funny yet generates sufficient threat and menace to serve the story.
When LaShondra Hood enters as Van Hesling, playwright Hamill lets there be no mistake that this is a bold, new take on the classic tale. With buckaroo swagger emphasized by a striking long leather coat and broad-brimmed hat, Hood strides in with purpose, proclaiming, “You expected a withered, old Dutchman!” and from then on the play becomes two battlegrounds; one to hunt and kill a vampire, and another to push back against toxic masculinity, most egregiously expressed by Dr, Seward (Mark Mozingo), Lucy’s fiance and director of the asylum housing Renfield (local favorite Abigail Bailey Maupin).
This Van Helsing is outspoken in their chafing at the dominance of men in society, and the fact that Hood is a Black woman allowed to bring an African American street-wise sensibility to the character emphasizes that aspect without too many speeches, but she does straightforwardly articulate that perspective; “THEY (men) can decide who is mad!”, or when she declares to a very pregnant Mina, “There are monsters in this world. Someone has to stand against them. Why not us?”
To underscore the point, Renfield is in thrall to Dracula, calling him “father”, and it is a female Renfield played nimbly and with great mad energy by Abigail Bailey Maupin. Being seated above her “cell” in the asylum, occasionally her scenes were out of sight, and I unfortunately never saw the most detailed part of Ashcraft’s set, the dark cell walls covered in Renfield’s scribbling, but Maupin makes her impact.
Lipica Shah is a less romanticized Mina, very pregnant during most of the play and much tougher, a vampire hunter in training at Van Helsing’s side, and also very funny. One of the strengths of Hamill’s text is the injection of humor in concert with the chills and violence. It works much in the same way that ATL’s previous Dracula did, using laughter to channel the scary moments. It lowers the stakes just enough to send the audience home to a peaceful sleep.
Brittany “BeeBee” Patillo’s Lucy remains most tied to the traditions of the play, although she is more liberal and feisty in her early exchanges with Mina, before she gets to have a blast playing the bloody, posessed part of the character. Mark Mozingo is perfectly unctuos as Seward, failing at his pompous efforts to command the women around him into submission. Mozingo is good but I bet he is only really having fun when he is allowed to join the hunt in the final scenes. And Justin Jackson is a fine Harker, a character who has plenty of time onstage but whose fun seems mostly confined to the early scenes subject to the creepy/comic “hospitality” of the Count and his minions in Transylvania.
LaShondra Hood attacks the role of Van Helsing with such fierce Black girl energy, she and director Jennifer Pennington know exactly what this opportunity holds in this moment for Louisville audiences and Actors Theatre. It is a strong, no holds barred performance that pays off beautifully. Her entrance triggered applause and the audience enthusiastically rose to their feet at the end of this Dracula, greeting the latest transition of this Louisville perennial with a standing ovation.
That ATL head Robert Barry Fleming entrusted this new production to a Louisville-based woman director (Pennington has taught at at Commonwealth Theatre Center, is now at the University of Louisville, and is a veteran of Kentucky Shakespeare) and six Kentucky-based actors (Hood, Patillo, Maupin, Jackson, and Tiller from Louisville and Mozingo is from Lexington) is of no small importance. Besides the revisionist feminist agenda, Dracula represents a deeper commitment to the local talent pool. The range and depth of the Louisville theatre community has been credited, rightly or wrongly, to the great success and influence of Actors Theatre in its heyday. Only time will tell if this is a watershed moment in the relationship of the city’s largest and most important theatre and the actors and directors who call Louisville home.
Dracula, A Feminist Revenge Fantasy
September 9-18, 2022
Live in the Bingham Theater.
Actors Theatre of Louisville
315 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.