Review: world premier of ‘Dracula Inquest’ by Central Works (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Dracula Inquest” plays at Central Works at The Berkeley City Club from July 12 through August 17, 2014).

Dracula. After countless reiterations, the name still has the power to chill a century after Bram Stoker penned his gothic occult masterpiece of terror.

Gary Graves’ “Dracula Inquest” is a highly entertaining, blood curdling fright fest. It is also exceptionally true to Bram Stoker’s original tale, while offering an intriguing new take on the old story.

Detective Sly (well-portrayed by John Flanagan) is investigating the disappearance and possible murder of Count Dracula, a Transylvanian nobleman. A manuscript in his possession consisting of letters and other documents (the audience recognizes that this is Stoker’s novel) has persuaded him that the Count may have been the victim of a mad cabal made up of a foreign professor, a questionable psychiatrist, a nobleman, and a solicitor who believed the Count to be some sort of unnatural monster. Sly has taken his investigation to Dr. Seward’s insane asylum, where the Doctor himself is now a straightjacketed patient, along with the solicitor, Jonathan Harker, Harker’s estranged wife Mina, and Professor Van Helsing.

Professor Van Helsing and his intrepid team of vampire hunters, now all inmates of the Whitby Asylum for the Criminally Insane —and underinvestigation regarding the disap-pearance of a mys-terious nobleman from Transylvania. (l to r): Kenny Toll, Joe Estlack, Joshua Schell & Megan Trout.) Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.
Professor Van Helsing and his intrepid team of vampire hunters, now all inmates of the
Whitby Asylum for the Criminally Insane — and under investigation regarding the disappearance of a mysterious nobleman from Transylvania. (l to r: Kenny Toll, Joe Estlack, Joshua Schell & Megan Trout.) Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

A working class sort of guy, Sly is convinced that he is uncovering evidence of the decadence of the upper classes, whose foolish dabbling in the occult has led them to commit a horrible crime. He interviews Seward, the two Harkers, and Professor Van Helsing and gradually compels them to repeat the familiar tale.

Playwright Graves’ class-based reading of this Victorian gem is persuasive and provides a pointed intellectual panache to the proceedings. But the guts of the play is in the actors’ retelling of the tale which they deliver with gusto and the requisite vocal and physical pyrotechnics.

Joshua Schell as Jonathan Harker. (Photo Credit: Jim Norrena)
Joshua Schell as Jonathan Harker. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Joshua Schell presents Jonathan Harker as a man suffering from post traumatic stress. Clearly he has undergone an experience of remarkable horror. His stuttering and choking paralysis as he tries to tell the tale while being overtaken with memory is powerfully convincing. As Dr. Seward, Kenny Toll drips with professional and class disdain for the cockney inspector and is seemingly mad one moment and rational the next. Joe Estlack convinces us that Professor Van Helsing is indeed brilliant, while making us wonder if he is also as mad as a hatter. The always exceptional Megan Trout brings a striking range of emotion to her creation of Mina Harker, seducing and terrifying in equal measure.

Gregory Scharpen’s original sound design effectively magnifies the thrills throughout.

This excellent production, with its emphasis on the communicative capacity of the actors’ voices and bodies, will please admirers of the great Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who famously characterized this minimalist approach as “poor theatre”. I believe Grotowski would have been pleased with this work.

The question at the heart of the play is this: While the narrators are clearly mad, is their madness the result of having encountered a supernatural horror or is it the result of having given in to their own worst instincts to commit a terrible and unjustified crime? Inspector Sly, a rationalist, believes the latter.

There’ll be no spoilers here. To find out how the play answers this central question, you’ll have to attend. Do so at your own peril.

For further information, click here.

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“Dracula Inquest”, a world premiere by Gary Graves, presented by Central Works Theatre Company. Director: Jan Zvaifler. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Lights: Gary Graves. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. 

Professor Van Helsing: Joe Estlack. Detective Sly: John Flanagan. Jonathan Harker: Joshua Schell. Kenny Toll: Dr. Seward. Mina Harker: Megan Trout. 

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