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DRACULA

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at the Will Geer Theatricum

Botanicum

What makes for a successful adaptation of a literary masterpiece? There's the compilation or elimination of nonessential characters and redundant plot occurrences. Brevity is always good and certainly maintains a coherent story line. And, last but not least necessary, is a concept that, although perhaps unique when presented, supports rather than distracts. Unfortunately this ambitious brainchild of director Ellen Geer, running a mind-numbing three hours, wound up repeatedly eliciting inappropriate laughter rather than any sort of hoped-for dramatic shock or awe.

Geer's biggest impediment is her all-encompassing devotion to Bram Stoker's original work. In forgoing much-needed editing, she barrages her audience with undeveloped personages and unnecessary subplots. She uses upstage readers, apparently to try to minimize these problems. Still, Mark Lewis' and Melora Marshall's well-delivered, step-by-step narration and recitation of characters' inner monologues eventually harks back to variety-show sketches wherein imaginary actors were forced to mimic their author's words. And although composer Marshall McDaniel's underscoring is the production's lone bright spot, his recitativelike arrangements using Stoker's words as a libretto are operatically atonal and dreadfully beyond the vocal limitations of this company.

Giving it the old college try, however, among this cast of 42, are Aaron Hendry as Jonathan Harker, the solicitor who first visits the villain's Eastern European abode; Mike Peebler as Dr. Seward, head of the local lunatic asylum; Jim LeFave as Renfield, his insect- and mammal-eating charge; and Chad Jason Scheppner, whose gymnastic turn as Dracula ends with one of the most anticlimactic demises imaginable.

But their energetic performances fall victim to a melodramatic avalanche from which no one escapes unscathed, least of all Willow Geer and Christina Howard—who, as Stoker heroines Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, deliver the show's worst musical interludes—and Alan Blumenfeld, whose Dr. Van Helsing is but a bellowing, two-dimensional cutout.

Charlotte Kruse's inconsistent costuming is all over the timeline. Michael Mahlum adequately lights the venue's every nook and cranny, which director Ellen Geer exploits relentlessly in staging a play whose meager conclusion left the weary audience momentarily unsure that it was actually finished.

Presented by and at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Jul. 28-Sep. 29. (310) 455-3723. www.theatricum.com.

Reviewed by Dink O'Neal

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