THEATER REVIEW : Garden Grove 'Dracula' Well-Mounted but Bloodless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With vampires all the rage from Hollywood to Romania, how could the Grove Theater Center's "Dracula" possibly compete?

Not badly, it turns out, if you're looking for a handsomely designed, attractively appointed, beautifully lighted, well-cast show.

But will somebody please call the script doctor?

Kevin Cochran's tedious new adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel is dead on arrival. It could use a whopping transfusion of writer's blood or at least an infusion of stage smarts equal to the production values.

The verbose script lays out the famous tale like a Victorian stiff pumped full of formaldehyde. Archaic dialogue and windy languors of exposition keep getting in the way of the action. Given the tin-ear squareness of this primly mannered kitsch, it's a wonder the show comes off as well as it does.

Credit must go in large measure to a cast capable of finessing its lines without winking for sympathy, which can't have been easy. The material, after all, begs for satirical treatment--even if Cochran, who also directed, keeps wanting it go straight.

Mark Wilson cuts an imposing figure as Dracula, a tall, dark hunk more sexy than scary in his black velvet cape. Beth Bates exudes blond beauty, innocence and a requisite sensuality as his victim, Mina. And in the unenviable role of Jonathan Harker, Mina's husband, Doug Tompos completes the triangle by managing to play the dumb cuckold-cum-doctor without losing his dignity.

The jewel in the crown, though, is the one instance of sheer buffoonery. Lighting up the stage and making the entire show worth seeing is Matthew Walker's lunatic performance as Renfield, a sweet madman who never met a bug he didn't like, especially for breakfast. Walker's simian antics--no pun intended--dispel the dramatic stasis that keeps sneaking up on the production whenever he's not around.

The cast's only letdown is Mink Stole. Her schoolmarmish portrait of Prof. Van Helsing, a garlic-bearing vampire scholar from Mitteleuropa, loses its fizz and goes flat before the meandering first act reaches intermission.

Still, while it may not be the same as seeing Tom Cruise do his stuff in "Interview With the Vampire," opening Nov. 11, and while it may not match a visit to the count's hometown in Transylvania (where they're making a killing on tourists these days), this "Dracula" does have compensations.

David Darwin's steeply raked set is picture-perfect. A striking tableau framed within a Gothic arch, the design makes remarkable use of the theater's deep yet narrow stage. It also underscores the warped reality of Dracula's universe and, not incidentally, enhances the towering impression of his grand entrances.

And wait till you get a load of the razzle-dazzle finale. It may be a tad clumsy. It may not satisfy "Phantom of the Opera" fans jaded by multiple viewings of the fabled flying chandelier. But this "Dracula" does pull out, shall we say, a cute, groundbreaking surprise.

Any qualms the city fathers might have had that their latest attempt to revive the downtown arts scene would not provide its share of peculiar special effects surely have been put to rest. Pace Dracula.

* "Dracula," Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 13. $18.50-$24.50. (714) 636-7213. Running time: 2 hours. Beth Bates: Mina Harker

Mink Stole: Prof. Van Helsing

Doug Tompos: Jonathan Harker

Matthew Walker: Renfield

Mark Wilson: Count Dracula

A Grove Theater Center production based on the novel by Bram Stoker, adapted and directed by Kevin Cochran. Produced by Charles L. Johanson. Lighting and set designs: David Darwin. Costumes: Terri Nista. Sound: Don Peterson. Stage manager: Nancy Staiger.

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