Review: Actors Theatre gives us the best ‘Dracula’ we’ve seen in years

David Ball and Kayla Peters in “Dracula” | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

Will I be killed by angry villagers if I suggest that before this year’s iteration, Actors Theatre’s yearly production of “Dracula” had grown a little too long in the tooth?

Well, get out your torches.

I have a certain fondness for old-school fight choreography. It’s like watching a ’70s horror film — it can be hokey at times, but it’s pretty fun.

Still. It’s 2018, and for a couple of years now, “Dracula” has needed an injection of creativity to give it a little new life. Thankfully, Actors Theatre has come to the same conclusion.

Santino Craven and Silvia Bond | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

A combination of heartfelt performances from key characters, a fresh approach to action and movement, and an attempt to give the play’s women more agency have made this year’s “Dracula” leaner, scarier, faster and sexier than it has been in years.

It’s also the most emotionally engaging, but we’ll get there in a second.

On a show with so many technical elements, such a big cast and so much fighting, it’s all too easy to overlook the director who sewed those parts together.

Director Drew Fracher has done an excellent job combining all the pieces to create a single creature and hit it with electricity to bring it to life.

Yes. That was a Frankenstein metaphor in a Dracula review.

The flashiest addition to this show is the new fight choreography from Jake Guinn. His work blends traditional stage combat choreography with a wide range of physical disciplines he has studied, from silat to parkour. Like the wire work of excellent martial arts movies, the result doesn’t look real — it looks beyond real. Or given the context, it’s not natural, it’s supernatural.

Santino Craven’s Dracula is one of the crucial updates to this year’s show. Virile, physical and active, his presence maintains the sense of action in every scene, not just during the fight choreography. It makes Craven’s Dracula more dangerous — and sexier.

Lucy, our heroine and the object of Dracula’s hunger throughout the play, is realized this year with an extra energy and oomf as well. Rin Allen gives us a Lucy who makes us understand why Dracula is so intent on suborning this particular woman to his will.

Santino Craven and Rin Allen | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

The tension of Allen’s performance in the first act makes it all the more gratifying when she finally gets to fly off the chain a bit in the second act. By letting her have extra moments of action here and there, the production successfully reframes her emotional journey and gives her a much more active role in her own destiny.

While it’s always exciting to see new actors like Allen and Craven on stage at Actors, Louisville’s theatergoing audience has its favorites, and Neill Robertson is surely at the top of that list. After being the highlight of last year’s “Dracula,” he returns as Renfield.

With this show’s renewed focus on action, Robertson is giving us an even more physical and athletic performance than he did last year, but he’s also digging deeper into the character’s pathos.

Another face that’s becoming a Louisville favorite is Crystian Wiltshire. Here, we see him as Lucy’s fiancee, Jonathan Harker. Instead of going the expected route and making his Harker mopey and mournful, Wiltshire keeps his natural joi de vivre and places an exhausted anger on top of it. We can see he’s lost something that used to be wonderful.

The trio of Allen, Robertson and Wiltshire give an emotional heart to the play, an integral ingredient for making sure “Dracula” is effective as a piece of drama and not just a vehicle for stunts and special effects.

Rin Allen and Crystian Wiltshire | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

Finally, “Dracula” is an excellent chance to see the Professional Training Company in action. The members play the Brides of Dracula and Dracula’s more bestial incarnations. On a number of levels, this show owes its increased speed to their labours.

Additionally, several of the slightly smaller roles are played by PTC members. Kayla Peters is suitably unsettling as lead bride Mina Harker. Jonathan Moises Olivares rouses anger and pity as the working-class Mr. Briggs, who is just doing his best to do his job in a mad world.

Silvia Daly Bond is given a bit more material to work with as the doctor’s assistant Ms. Sullivan, and she gives us some truly eerie moments. She creates a Ms. Sullivan who provides an interesting counterpoint to both Allen’s Lucy and Robertson’s Renfield.

As said earlier, this “Dracula” is the best one we’ve had in years. It’s definitely worth your time and money.

The current script has provided a lot of good scares and great memories for Louisville audiences. But if Actors Theatre and the creative team can make the show feel this fresh by making small tweaks and offering new action, what could they do starting from the ground and working their way up?

Fifth Third Bank’s “Dracula” continues at Actors Theatre on Friday, Sept. 21, and runs until Oct. 31. Tickets start at $35.