~ Contributed by Hannah Sandler and Erin Sandler-Rathe
Drac is back in Kate Hamill’s Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, but Hamill’s play knocks the women around him out of his orbit to flesh out their experiences in a way that Bram Stoker’s novel never does. While Mina and Jonathan Harker, Lucy Westenra, Dr. George Seward, and the Count himself tread familiar paths in this reimagining, their relationships are sharpened and their motivations examined in a new light.
Hamill is “one of the most produced playwrights in America in recent years,” according to The Umbrella Stage Company’s press release for the season. Her fresh takes on Jane Austen, Little Women, and other classics have imbued these works with a feminist spirit, and Dracula seems overripe for similar treatment.
As in the traditional story, the Count (Dustin Teuber) summons Jonathan Harker (Joseph Jude) to his Transylvanian castle to lay groundwork for a move to London, spurred by a desire to escape pitchfork-wielding local mobs and find new hunting grounds. His “wives,” who have been made vampires themselves, seduce Jonathan and infect him before he escapes and makes his way to Whitby, a seaside town where his pregnant wife, Mina (Lisa San Pascual), is visiting her school friend, Lucy Westenra (Gabrielle Hatcher). Inevitably, Dracula follows, bringing his wives with him and ultimately infecting Lucy as well.
Lucy and Mina notably take center stage for much of the first act, with Lucy’s engagement to Dr. George Seward (Dominic Carter) and Mina’s pregnancy prompting conversations about women’s status in Victorian England. Mina longs for adventure and worries that motherhood will sideline those opportunities, acknowledging that she will only go abroad now if her husband wishes to take her with him. Lucy admits to some jitters about marrying Dr. Seward, not because he mistreats her but because she fears that their relationship will be fundamentally altered after marriage: she will become his property, subject to his authority.
When the two friends tour the insane asylum that Seward directs, with him, these conversations strike an even more dire chord. They encounter Renfield (Sara Jones), one of Seward’s patients, here cast as a woman whom Count Dracula “liberated” by killing her husband and possessing her mind. Renfield’s status, not only as a woman in thrall to a powerful man but also as an involuntarily-committed woman, alarms Mina in particular. Mina questions the fact that a woman can be committed by nothing more than the say-so of her husband, although Seward dismissively reassures her that his institution is modern and functions more kindly.
After the visit, Lucy is troubled for several nights in a row by visitations from the Count and his wives, which Mina also witnesses, but both women believe them to be dream visions. Once Lucy falls into a fever, Seward calls in Dr. Van Helsing (Maria Hendricks), here portrayed as a “real American cowgirl,” as Drusilla (Emily Sheeran) refers to her in their first battle. Despite performing a transfusion of clean blood from herself and Seward, Van Helsing is not able to save Lucy, and the first act concludes with her death and burial.
The second act sees Dracula coming to Whitby and the ensuing battles between him and Dr. Van Helsing. Van Helsing recruits Mina as a vampire hunter, over Seward’s objections due to her “condition.” With the introduction of Van Helsing, the feminist critiques really take off. Van Helsing’s insistence that Seward call her “Dr.” as she is entitled to will feel familiar to any woman who has been dismissed by male colleagues. She also repeatedly reminds Seward that Mina’s pregnancy has not shut off her brain functions.
The trio of Mina, Van Helsing, and Renfield, refracts adult womanhood, as the three engage in conversations about exactly what their place is or should be: Renfield admits she doesn’t remember who she was before marriage, let alone without the Count; Mina is excited for motherhood but fears that the now-infected Jonathan has become very different from the man she thought she had married; and Van Helsing reveals how her own marital battles led her to vampire hunting (no spoilers). Van Helsing’s example, however, gives Renfield and Mina the courage to stand up for themselves and to imagine that they might be defined by more than their relationships to men.
Harker and Seward each struggle with what it means to be a modern man, with Seward clinging to science and rationality even as Van Helsing’s theories of the supernatural creatures prove true before his eyes. Harker fights to remain faithful to Mina, while the Count and his wives mock him for not being a real man. The Count delivers a seductive speech about how the “old ways” allowed men to be stronger and more powerful, rejecting modernity and the way it, to his mind, diminishes men. Press materials refer to this staging as a reckoning in the #MeToo era; in that way, it’s easy to hear echoes of the Count in nasty men’s rights movement propaganda and the rhetoric spouted by incels in the dark corners of the Internet.
The play is staged in the Umbrella’s black box theater on a minimal but effective set. Music, lighting, and sound effects create the necessary atmosphere, shifting the audience from a dusty Romanian road to an English seaside town to a dungeon-like asylum as needed. This gives the audience space to imagine the visual setting for themselves. There’s a neat trick where the Count at times speaks through various characters, accomplished with lip-syncing and lighting.
Mina and Lucy, in particular, share an easy cattiness that feels very natural between girlfriends, and Mina and Jonathan open the production on loving, equal footing. Dominic Carter ably portrays Seward’s growth from a superior, dismissive skeptic to a genuine ally who worries he hasn’t done enough to right his past wrongs.
There are a few off notes in the production, among them the choice to cast Bowen Huang and Emily Sheeran in multiple roles. Each plays one of the vampire-wives but each also stands in as servants and merchants in other scenes. Their blood-spattered costumes are still sometimes visible after the shift into these other roles, and while their accent and speech patterns change appropriately from role to role, it still distracts from immersion in the scenes. There was also widespread confusion in the audience at the end of the first act whether the play was over or whether it was merely an intermission. The program gave no indication either way, so we simply stayed in our seats and waited.
Despite these minor detractions, the play was a fun and thought-provoking outing. Hannah, who had no familiarity with the original source material before going into this staging, found it empowering and progressive. And for Erin, who has studied Dracula through a critical, professional lens, Hamill’s script served as a way to re-examine the material without throwing it over.
Editor’s Note: Hannah Sandler is a 7th grader at JGMS and Erin Sandler-Rathe is a freelance writer and consultant in Bedford
To learn more, or to get tickets
Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really runs Thursdays through Sundays through October 23 (no performance 10/14) at The Umbrella Stage Company in Concord. Tickets are available through their online box office ($45 Adult; $40 Senior; $20 Student). All seating is general admission, and attendees should be prepared for strobe effects, fog, potential splatter, and stairs. The theatre has also issued a content warning for sexual situations, violence, and suicide, recommending it for ages 16+.