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DramaWatch: Fangs for the memories

Portland Center Stage sinks its teeth into a "Dracula" with feminist flair. Plus: It's open (holiday) season with a musical "Wonderful Life," a visit to Whoville, a comic Christmas tea.

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From left: Jamie Rea, Setareki Wainiqolo, La’ Tevin Alexander, & Treasure Lunan in “Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Shawnte Sims

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“There are monsters in this world, Mina. Somebody has to stand against them. Why not us?”

from Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, by Kate Hamill

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I am immune to vampire.

By this I do not mean that I would not succumb to the predations – visceral and/or supernatural – of an undead monster determined to drain me of blood, life force, free will, etc. Of course, I mean all that, too, because I’m quite certain that monsters of that particular sort are not in this world. My immunity, rather, is to the allure of vampires, their appeal as myth or archetype or entertainment franchise. 

I’ve always quite admired, I’ll grant, the stark creepiness of Nosferatu, both F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. But otherwise I can’t be bothered with such mumbo jumbo. The craze around Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, the popularity of the novels peaking with the release of the 1994 pretty-boy movie Interview With the Vampire, left me cold – more from boredom than from blood loss. Even Bela Lugosi’s indelible performance in the 1931 film Dracula is, to my mind, overshadowed by the sheer silliness of the story’s supernatural horror conceits.

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Of course, it could be worse; we could be talking about zombies.

In any case, I’m hardly the ideal audience for Kate Hamill’s Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, which opens this weekend at Portland Center Stage. (For one thing, I can’t even figure out whether that last word in the title is meant offhandedly, or emphatically, or what.)

But it’s not for nothing that Hamill has been one of the most frequently produced playwrights in America over the past several years. She has a knack for adapting classic literature for the 21st-century stage, balancing an unmistakable love for her source material with just enough updated language and critically enhanced cultural perspective to make the 19th century feel fresh and relatable. 

At least that was her approach with the Jane Austen properties (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice) that established her box-office bona fides. She’s also proved willing to mix things around a bit – for instance, her “cheerful desecration” of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B, which PCS staged earlier this year. She’s up to something similar here, taking a feminist lens (something incipient in Austen’s works, and just waiting to be amplified) as a tool to bring new light to what have previously been very male-dominated stories.

Hamill’s version of Bram Stoker’s famous vampire is another sexy beast, written as a paragon of powers both seductive and supernatural. But here the vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing is a tough-talking American woman. The sycophantic Renfield is a woman who follows the vampire voluntarily (well, after the trauma of watching him devour her husband), hoping for protection and favor. And the real brave hero turns out to be … well, we’ll leave you some surprises.

Cycerli Ash as Dr. Van Helsing in “Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

Hamill’s Dracula premiered in 2020, and has received varied responses. To The Wall Street Journal, it was a “timely spin on Stoker for the #MeToo era.” To a reviewer for the site Theatre Is Easy, Hamill “uses a sledgehammer, or should I say a stake, instead of a scalpel in attacking the sexism of Stoker’s age. … This adaptation screams bloody murder about female angst, heterosexism, toxic masculinity and the search for freedom inside and outside traditional roles assigned to women.”

Then there’s the balanced view of the terrific critic Helen Shaw, now with The New Yorker but writing then for Vulture: “Hamill’s spirited Dracula has gone full Buffy the Vampire Slayer, womanhandling the plot so that it becomes a self-consciously ‘fierce’ parable about warrior-femme liberation. Stoker’s original stoked 120 years of fantasies about anemic virgins and smoky-eyed guys who exerted hypnotic sexual control — even for us ladies, the anti-feminism (cf. Twilight) has been part of its allure. But Hamill pumps blood right back into those women, changing some characters’ genders and beefing up women’s roles. And the result is: Men get checked. Vampires get stomped.” 

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Shaw’s description captures some of the spirit that Hamill likely is after with a note near the beginning of the published version of the script: “There is no point in doing a vampire play if you can’t have fun in doing so. If you explore the glee, the darkness will also pop.”

In charge of making the darkness pop at Center Stage is artistic director Marissa Wolf, who deploys a cast including longtime Portland favorite Darius Pierce; a handful of actors more closely associated with Portland Playhouse, such as Cycerli Ash, La’ Tevin Alexander and Nikki Weaver; and Setareki Wainiqolo as the titular undead monster.

On the page, at least, Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really is an entertaining, even compelling piece of work – really. I’ll have to see the production to know for certain, but maybe – just maybe – my immunity is waning.

The flattened stage

With all due respect to the resident Sesame Street arithmetic teacher, and to Nandor the Relentless from What We Do in the Shadows, my favorite vampire remains the unforgettable Count Floyd: 

Opening

For those of you thirsty for a Christmas cuppa, the comedy duo James & Jamesy are happy to serve. Though the show O, Christmas Tea is advertised as a “British comedy,” it’s actually the work of Canadians – James & Jamesy being the creation of clown performers Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles, with director David MacMurray Smith, who teamed up a little more than a decade ago. Their hometown paper, the Vancouver Sun, describes their holiday show as “sort of Mr. Bean-meets-Jeeves and Wooster-after a pot of high grade pot … family-friendly nuttiness that just happens to feature a fair bit of surrealism.”

A pair of performances at the Newmark Theatre on Sunday kick off a week around Oregon, with shows following in Bend, Salem, Beaverton and Eugene. 

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Quesa DaMondays as Cindy Lou Who in the seasonal romp “Who’s Holiday!” Photo: Casey Campbell

At least as The New York Times sees it, the Matthew Lombardo play Who’s Holiday “belongs to the evergreen subgenre of holiday offerings that proffer to dirty up Christmas while ultimately reveling in its spirit.” The dirt in this case has accrued on that Seussian sweetheart Cindy Lou Who, now presented as, in the words of a Time Out London reviewer, “a Xanax-popping, bong-huffing, slut-dropping ex-convict,” from whom the Grinch has stolen not just presents but, er, let’s call it childhood innocence. 

Triangle Productions staged it in Portland five years ago. Now Melory Mirashrafi directs the drag artist Quesa DaMondays (Alec Cameron Lugo) in a production by Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage.

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Pottersville? Perish the thought! Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages.

Stumptown Stages presents the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life in what you might think of as an in-house adaptation, with book and lyrics by one of the company’s founders, Janet Mouser, and music and lyrics by longtime company stalwart Julianne R. Johnson-Weiss, along with Michael Allen Harrison and Alan Berg. Harrison, a pianist/composer whose work divides Portland music lovers into two camps, has sold gazillions of tickets to his own holiday concerts over the years. On the other hand, Portland theater veteran turned Broadway producer Corey Brunish directs a cast featuring such reliably enjoyable performers as Doren Elias, Kylie Rose, and Gary Wayne Cash. 

Weekenders

CoHo Theater, which hosted the Bob Powers play Chasing Rainbows as a Friendly House fundraiser this summer, presents Laughing Matters, Powers’ new collection of comedic stories in response to these too-often unfunny times. The first of the two nights for this show will be a gala benefiting CoHo Productions and The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration.

Readings are fundamental

Oregon theater fans have been able to enjoy the work of Dominique Morisseau in fine productions of her plays Skeleton Crew (at Artists Rep in 2018) and Confederates (an Oregon Shakespeare Festival commission, staged there in 2022). The former play, about auto workers facing the specter of layoffs, is part of a series known as the Detroit Project, examining her hometown in a manner similar to August Wilson’s vaunted Pittsburgh Cycle. A

lso in that series is 2015’s Paradise Blue, which PassinArt presents Monday in its ongoing series of staged readings. Set in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood as the era of so-called “urban renewal” looms, the play – which the L.A. Times described as “richly observed and inhabited” – concerns a trumpeter considering whether to sell the jazz club where he and his friends have held forth for years.

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Second-hand news

“It’s true that her career did not launch until she was 38; and most of her audience could not tell you her name or anything about her; and many of the attendees of the Groundlings improv show in Los Angeles, in which she still performs weekly, probably do not recognize her — set all that aside, though, and Stephanie Courtney is one of the most successful actors in the world.” 

From The New York Times comes a fascinating profile, a story of professional perseverance and the unlikely ascent of a sketch-and-improv actor to the caviar set.

The best line I read this week

“We possess broad natures, Karamazov natures. We’re capable of combining all possible contradictions and simultaneously contemplating both abysses at the same time, the abyss above, that of lofty ideals, and the abyss below, that of the most vile and stinking degradation.”

– from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, as quoted in an article in The New Yorker.

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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