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Dracula: The women fight back

Review: In Kate Hamill's toothsome update "Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really" at Portland Center Stage, the tables are deliciously turned.

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Nikki Weaver plays the pivotal role of Renfield in Kate Hamill's "Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really." Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy of Portland Center Stage
Nikki Weaver plays the pivotal role of Renfield in Kate Hamill’s “Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really.” Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy of Portland Center Stage

If you are going to riff on iconic literature, as playwright Kate Hamill is known for doing (having adapted the works of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Arthur Conan Doyle), it’s best if you have something to say. With Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, playing through Dec. 24 at Portland Center Stage, Hamill makes no secret of her purpose. Indeed, in a world in which it takes scores of women to bring down one powerful sexual predator, coyness would not serve the purpose. She means to take back the story.

As it turns out, Dracula is a perfect vehicle for grappling with toxic masculinity. Hamill’s characteristic playfulness suits the material, injecting bits of lightness that ease the darkness and violence. Dracula, the villain, is both attractive and diabolical. He compels and manipulates, and then sucks the life out of people. He plays on people’s trust, and enlists them in their own destruction. The connection feels like it has simply been waiting to be engaged—and it is indeed frightening.

There is blood and death in this story, but the real scares are underneath all that. For me, the heart of the play is the character of Renfield, who lives in the insane asylum run by Doctor Seward, one of the three men in the production.  Bram Stoker wrote Renfield as a man—indeed, most of the major characters in the original story are men—but as Hamill has noted, given the misogyny in that original story, Renfield, so slavishly devoted to her captor Dracula, makes far more sense as a woman.  Here she is brought to fantastic life by Nikki Weaver, who creeps and snaps and croons and slams her body, while raving loyalty to the vampire, whom she calls “Daddy.” 

We come to learn that she was an abused wife prone to writing flowery poetry, who now no longer remembers who her husband was, and has turned herself into a sort of paranoid prophet hastening the way for the patriarch in whom she has placed her trust. Renfield’s importance emerges as the other characters begin to realize and grasp the danger posed by Dracula; what first sound like mad ravings acquire a sort of logic connected to Dracula’s use of power, which promises rewards for loyalty and then punishes the most loyal. Renfield becomes the voice of the trusting true believer, and Weaver’s riveting embodiment of her contains the story’s essential horror. 

From left: The blood-curdling (in a dramatically good way) trio of Jamie Rea, Ashley Song, and Treasure Lunan. Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
From left: The blood-curdling (in a dramatically good way) trio of Jamie Rea, Ashley Song, and Treasure Lunan. Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Unlike in the original, where the women are mainly sexualized victims, in this production the women question and fight and drive much of the action. Mina Harker (Ashley Song, brimming with life) notices how her friend Lucy (a vibrant Sammy Rat Rios) hides her intelligence around her fiancé, Doctor Seward (a suitably pompous Darius Pierce). The two women wrestle with the risk involved in marriage at a time when women were essentially owned by their husbands, and Lucy’s bad choices read a bit like misguided grasping for better options than she can see. 

Meanwhile, Dracula’s two scary brides (Jamie M. Rea and Treasure Lunan, both fierce) embody both subjugation and embodiment of the values of their master.  “You know you want it,” they taunt Mina’s husband, Jonathan (a perfectly malleable La’Tevin Alexander).  “It’s your own fault coming in here like that, looking so good!” 

Into this world of Victorian misogyny bursts a powerful Cycerli Ash as the vampire-slayer Doctor Van Helsing, as though from a different story entirely; maybe even from the future. Sporting an American accent, she is armed and dressed to fight like a cowboy. She expects to be disbelieved, especially by men like Doctor Seward, but also knows she is right, and moves with a clarity of purpose and a sense of the scale of the danger that no one else can see. How fitting!  Someone with the courage to combat what others aren’t ready to see, and who also knows she can’t do it alone. 

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Van Helsing realizes what others don’t: that the monsters “look just like us.”  In this telling, Dracula doesn’t have fangs, and isn’t scared of crosses or daylight. As played by Setareki Wainiqolo, his power seems more chilling as the story unfolds. It is about violence, but also about disregard. And his power is facilitated by religious and legal institutions, by acquisition of property, and by the alternative stories we tell to comfort ourselves.

Cycerli Ash plays the vampire-slaying Dr. Van Helsing, who knows things about monsters that others don't. Photo: Tamera Lyn/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Cycerli Ash plays the vampire-slaying Dr. Van Helsing, who knows things about monsters that others don’t. Photo: Tamera Lyn/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

One of the play’s special delights is its recognition that solidarity will be needed to address harm this serious, and that different players bring different gifts. Van Helsing has learned her lessons from fighting her way out, but Mina brings skills that Van Helsing lacks. Mina’s instincts for communicating with Renfield are different and better, and shift the action in unexpected directions. She fights with words as well as weapons, finally telling Dracula as she delivers the final death blows, “No!  No!  No!  We!  Said! No!”  Van Helsing doesn’t do everything, and can’t, though she carries the play’s important question:  Can you ever trust someone who holds absolute power?  In this play, monsters lurk where we give them power.

Hamill has said in a recent interview (101 Stage Adaptations podcast) that she finds the classics “really useful cultural touchstones in which to reexamine who our protagonists are, [to] reinvent what the story of a hero’s journey is, to examine who’s valued and who is allowed to fall by the wayside. …”  She aims, in a “non-cynical way,” to persuade audiences to open their minds and change the cultural conversation.  As beautifully realized in the current production at Portland Center Stage, under the skilled direction of Artistic Director Marissa Wolf, Dracula is full of insights about power—how to use it, and how to fight it.  It’s not typical holiday fare, but maybe it should be.

Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really

  • Where: Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., Portland
  • When: Wednesdays-Sundays through Dec. 24
  • Ticket information: Here

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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