Pictured: Yetunde Felix-Ukwu and Dayton Hollis. Photo by Brian Paulette.
By Bec Pennington
Nights are getting crisp in Kansas City, leaves are tumbling, the wild are migrating, and it’s time for some spooky yarn-spinning. Kansas City Actors Theatre’s presentation of the new DRACULA: A SONG OF LOVE AND DEATH hopes to do the trick.
Bram Stoker’s novel is notoriously difficult to adapt to theater, as the book was arranged as a series of letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles among other somewhat disjointed fictional recollections. Like so many before his, Mitch Brian’s script struggles, attempting a somewhat faithful rendition, but not quite sure of itself. DRACULA wants to be modern, but not set in modern times; it wants to be graphic, but not frightening; it wants to be startling, but it lacks suspense. Some characters are written for laughs, others are humorous in spite of themselves. We as an audience are not sure whether we are laughing with or at this play, and that is not a good feeling. Most disappointing is the attempt to thrill the audience with a twist that falls flat.
Updates to the storyline include Renfield as a woman (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu) who hopes to be Dracula’s bride, and Quincy Morris (Khalif Gillett) as an African American cowboy who has escaped the racist sentiment across the pond by becoming a mercenary. These roles are admirably written into the script as such, demonstrating a hope for continued diversity in the casting of future productions. Mina (Marianne McKenzie), though not a fragile character to begin with, is given expanded autonomy. Each in the ensemble embraces their role with enthusiasm, though without much chemistry between them, and it’s really hard to say whether that is the writing, direction, or acting choices or perhaps a combination of errors. The pacing is good, the story is easily followed, and the scenes do transition well.
Hector Quintero’s lighting is ambitious, but requires some tweaking. A couple of entrances, designed to be silhouette, clearly have not been tested in all areas of the theater, as they are painfully blinding for a long handful of seconds from certain vantages. Some touches are impressive, including good use of Kylor Greene’s projection work and a truly eerie effect using side lights. Sound equipment is pushed past its maximum, as microphones wander in and out of operation. Kelli Harrod’s sets and scenery are appropriate and smoothly utilized. Like the show in general, though, the overall technical design doesn’t always know what it wants to be, electing for flash rather than polish.
Honestly, it is a difficult thing to refresh an old tale and it cannot be said that this play isn’t entertaining or interesting. While the passion for the work is undeniable in every aspect, and the subject has demonstrated its worthiness in revisit, it’s not possible to deem this attempt a success. KCAT’s development of DRACULA is an ambitious rendering with fantastical effects, but this version of the familiar story just doesn’t quite hit all the notes.