Performing Arts

‘Blood will fly’: KC’s updated ‘Dracula’ pumps up violence, shakes up gender and race

Watch ‘Dracula’ come to life with KC Actors Theatre, a ‘dream come true’ for writer Mitch Brian

Local filmmaker, writer and UMKC professor Mitch Brian and director John Rensenhouse watch the rehearsal Brian's new adaptation of "Dracula" for KC Actors Theatre.
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Local filmmaker, writer and UMKC professor Mitch Brian and director John Rensenhouse watch the rehearsal Brian's new adaptation of "Dracula" for KC Actors Theatre.

Lots of teens go through a vampire phase.

Mitch Brian never outgrew his.

Over the years the KC-based Hollywood screenwriter/playwright has often turned to the undead for subject matter.

There’s his unproduced screenplay “Last Voyage of the Demeter” (about Count Dracula’s sea voyage from the Continent to England), a four-hour TV miniseries based on “Dracula” (it almost got made) and the stage comedy “Sorority House of the Dead.”

Moreover, Brian — he’s also a University of Missouri-Kansas City associate professor teaching film studies, directing and screenwriting — regularly rereads the novel that started it all, Irish author Bram Stoker’s 1897 “Dracula.”

“In my 10th-grade English class we went through the book with a fine-tooth comb,” recalled Brian, 56. “I’ve had this thing for Dracula forever. The first script I ever had optioned was a vampire script.

“So when I heard that John Rensenhouse would be directing ‘Dracula’ for the Actors Theatre, I called and asked him which version they were doing. He said they hadn’t quite decided and I said, ‘Please hire me to write this thing. I know how we can make it work.’”

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Mitch Brian teaches his UMKC film students about “The Wild Bunch” and helped organize this week’s screening. “You don’t have to like everything about a film for it to be great,” he says. File photo by Todd Norris Kansas City Actors Theatre

Brian’s “Dracula: A Song of Love and Death” will have its world premiere run Oct. 12-21 in a joint production of the Kansas City Actors Theatre and the UMKC theater department.

“Like everything else in this business,” Brian said, “it was a case of right place, right time, with the right preparation.”

People think they know “Dracula,” thanks to the many films, TV series, plays and literary spinoffs generated in the 120 years since Stoker’s novel kicked off the vampire craze. For many of us, our take on the bloodthirsty Count comes from the 1931 Hollywood film starring Bela Lugosi.

That’s a good starting point, Brian said. It means his audience already is familiar with all those vampire tropes.

“The attraction for me is getting to do the things I’ve loved most about the book but which I don’t think have ever been done before.”

For starters, the focus of Brian’s “Dracula” is not the creepy/romantic Count, who is on stage perhaps less than a fourth of the time.

“For me ‘Dracula’ has always been about this group of friends and this interloper who threatens their loving relationship. Dracula” — played here by UMKC graduate Josh LeBrun — “is an agent of hate, power and narcissism threatening this family who are anticipating a wonderful summer together.”

Director Rensenhouse, who in 1987 portrayed the bloodthirsty Count for Kansas City Repertory Theatre (back then it was Missouri Rep), said he was intrigued by the ways Brian modernized the tale.

“These are people who aren’t related but who have built their own sort of family,” Rensenhouse noted. “That’s much more common today. Dracula wants to come in and destroy all that.”

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Director John Rensenhouse worked with his cast during a recent rehearsal of “Dracula.” Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Resenhouse said he nixed one of Brian’s more out-there suggestions: that Dracula be depicted with poofy blond hair and orange complexion.

“Through the lens of our contemporary world Mitch sees Dracula as a Trumpian figure,” Rensenhouse said. “I thought that might be pushing it.”

The plot of Brian’s “Dracula” stays close to the novel. Real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Freddy Acevedo) travels to the Carpathian Mountains to arrange the move of the mysterious Count Dracula to a new home in England.

Jonathan goes missing, setting off alarms among his friends, especially his wife, Mina (Marianne McKenzie), who later will become Dracula’s obsession.

A secondary plot involves Mina’s friend Lucy (Chelsea Kinser) and the suitors vying for her hand. In the novel these romantic rivals are Dr. John “Jack” Seward (Jason Francescon), who runs the local mental hospital; a bowie-knife carrying Texan, Quincey Morris (Khalif Gillett); and the wealthy nobleman Arthur Holmwood, whom Lucy agrees to marry.

In most reiterations of “Dracula” the character of Quincey is eliminated. Brian moves him front and center and offers a new twist by making the Texan an African-American.

“I’ve always loved Quincey Morris. He’s my favorite character in the book,” Brian said. “And a third of all cowboys were black. If you’re black in 1897 and you have the wherewithal to get out of America — well, you’d do that.”

At the same time, Brian is eliminating the character of Holmwood.

“As far as I can tell he’s just there to provide money and open doors. I’ve never liked him or felt that there was all that much for him to do. So I got rid of him.

“Now Lucy has two suitors, Quincey and Jack — and she doesn’t want to choose. She likes them both. And the men are friends. It’s a polyamorous relationship.”

Rensenhouse said he was particularly taken with Brian’s introduction of female sexual awakening, “a turning from Victorian to more modern ways. We’re taking that theme seriously. We need the campy cape twirl, to let people know we’re dealing with an archetype and are having fun with it. But there’s more to be squeezed from this story.”

But nothing Brian has done with his “Dracula” is as radical as his interpretation of Renfield, the insect-eating madman in Seward’s asylum who is seduced by the vampire’s promise of eternal life.

This time around, Renfield is a woman.

“It seemed like an interesting way to shake things up,” Brian said, “to re-examine the story in terms of gender and the promises Dracula makes her. For her it’s a story about going from being locked up in an asylum to becoming the bride of the king.

“There have been lots of Dracula plays. The challenge is to make ours a Dracula play for 2018, one relevant to the world we now live in.”

After four decades of slasher films, audiences may view stage violence with a shrug. Rensenhouse says that this “Dracula” will be shocking.

“The blood will fly,” he promised. “Most other versions of ‘Dracula’ I’ve read don’t get quite so graphic. But, then, to really do a vampire in, you first stake him, then chop off his head.”

The novel assumes an epistolary format, telling its tale through letters, diary entries, newspaper stories and other written records. It was a sly trick on Stoker’s part — grounding his fantastic yarn in the reality of daily correspondence.

Brian pays homage to that device by having characters sometimes read their journal entries to the audience. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the novel.

The show will be a balancing act between melodrama and fleeting eruptions of humor, Rensenhouse said.

“The other day I told Kip Niven, who is our Van Helsing (the vampire hunter), that he could go more histrionic. His response was, ‘More histrionic? Nobody has ever told me that in my whole career.’ I told him, ‘Well, now’s the time.’ “

The presentation will take advantage of the technical wizardry offered by the Spencer Theatre stage, the main home of KC Rep.

“It will be a real experiential, immersive thing,” Brian promises.

He and his filmmaking partner Todd Norris have been making mini-movies mimicking turn-of-the-century cinema. And Brown University researchers specializing in bat movement have provided evocative footage of those creatures in flight. All these visual elements will be incorporated.

“I wouldn’t call it a multimedia show, exactly, but we’re using multimedia to embrace the theatricality of it all,” Brian said.

Rensenhouse, chairman of the artistic committee of KC Actors Theater, said he rarely gets to play with the sort of resources provided by Spencer Theatre, “not to mention the free student labor to work on it.

“So we’ve designed this gigantic set with projections, moving scenery, original music, stage combat and blood. Mitch is a screenwriter and writes big and imaginatively. Sometimes it’s difficult to adapt that vision to the stage, but here we’ve got the resources to pull it off.”

On stage

Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of “Dracula” will run Oct. 12-21 at the Spencer Theatre at UMKC. See kcactors.org or call 816-235-6222.

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