The Arkansas Shakespeare Festival has made a habit out of throwing curveballs in its annual salute to The Bard. One of this year's examples was especially exciting to Yours Truly, given that I was a vampire lit freak long before anybody heard of "Twilight" or Sookie Stackhouse. Then again, it's hard to think of a better pairing than Shakespeare and Bram Stoker. Both wrote well about bloodsuckers, though ol' Bram's were of the literal variety while Shakespeare's were much more apt to be feeding on more figurative heartsmilk.
In short: All those hours drilling actors on Shakespeare leading up to the festival have paid off in spades for "Dracula," which turns out to be a genuinely thrilling time at the theater.
Though the sets by veteran designer Doug Gilpin are spare, rich lighting and sound — along with a tiered stage and sometimes-transparent-sometimes-opaque curtains — make the production lush and more mysterious. That deep stage and gauzy curtain are used to great effect in scenes dealing with flashbacks to Jonathan Harker's torturous sojourn in Transylvania as a guest of the Count.
The acting, as with all the Shakespeare Festival productions I've seen, is first rate. One clear standout is Greyson Lewis as Renfield, who plays Dracula's John the Baptist with a flailing, Puck-like glee. Also fine are Tracie Thomason as Mina and Paul Saylor as Harker, both of them navigating the slippery slope from carefree and in love to terrified and hunted believably enough to create suspense. Nathan Hosner is also good as Count Dracula, though we don't see much of him. As in the book, Dracula is often the imagined threat lurking just out of the edge of the light, and that works here to good effect.
The production could have been more adventurous with the character of Dracula. Hosner is decked out in a version of the classic Dracula garb, with red waistcoat and black cape, and is clearly channeling Bela Lugosi's famous performance. The effect, in this post-"Twilight" world, is to leave the Granddaddy of All Vamps looking dated and campy. A bit more of a dark and subdued look and mannerism could have added a new facet to the character without adding a word.
Even at that, "Dracula" is a good time at the theater, full of fine performances and satisfying stagecraft. Unlike its namesake, it definitely does not suck.
"Dracula" concludes at Reynolds Hall 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 1, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 3.