BUFFALO - Theater lovers often devote the month of October to seeking out a new and original view of "things which go 'bump' in the night."
This year, Art Repertory Theater of Western New York, in cooperation with Theatre Jugend, invite you to take a drive to Buffalo, over the coming weeks, to see a whole new view of a world classic: "Dracula," by Bram Stoker.
Their version is called "The Dead English," and it adds an element which the classic story rarely has - music. The composing was by Steven E. Sitzman, and the lyricist was Justin Karcher. And, if you're thinking this is a campy knock-off of "The Rocky Horror Show," I've recently attended a rehearsal by the young company, and I assure you, it is not.
Anthony Alcocar portrays Count Vlad Dracula, an ancient and powerful vampire who plots to take over England in the American Repertory Theatre of Western New York production of 'The Dead English,' and adaptation for the stage of Bram Stoker's famous novel.
Let me tell you something about the ART company and its founder, who describes himself as "A Chautauqua County boy, through and through," and then I'll tell you about what I saw and learned on my visit to Buffalo, and something about the whole vampire myth. First, though let me give you the particulars of the production, in the hope that you might want to take a look at it for yourself.
"The Dead English" will be performed at the Church of the Ascension, an Episcopal Church, located at the intersection of North Street and Linwood Avenue. The formal address is 16 Linwood Ave.
Driving directions are easy. From downtown, take Delaware Avenue East to the intersection of North Street. Turn right and go a short distance. The church will appear on your left. As a landmark, North Street is intersected by Franklin Street, and then, almost immediately, by Linwood. It's easy to be confused if you're not familiar with the area.
Performance dates are every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, beginning Friday of the coming week, and running through Nov. 10. The show begins at 8 p.m. on each of those dates.
Tickets cost $15 for the general public, and $12 for students and active members of the U.S. military. Purchase them by phoning 634-1102, or by computer at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/279254. There is a service charge for tickets purchased online, but it's the most reasonable charge I have encountered since service charges were first introduced.
The company themselves do not accept credit cards, only cash and personal checks, so if you want to use a card, buy your tickets online.
"The Dead English" is being directed by Drew McCabe. The show had its origins in November 2011, when McCabe was watching some French vampire films, created by Jean Rolin. The plot appealed to him, not only on the basic level, but for the cultural allusions which could also be applied. McCabe is a graduate of the University of Buffalo who has already rung up a lengthy list of directing credits for ART of WNY, as well as for Buffalo United Artists, Subversive Theatre and the New Phoenix Theatre.
McCabe founded what he calls his "Generation Y" theater company, Theatre Jugend with Justin Karcher, who was quickly enlisted to undertake the actual writing of the pair's ideas.
Karcher is a graduate of Canisius College, where he achieved a reputation as "a beat poet incarnate." He has had a number of his creations produced by Buffalo area theater companies. Some of these are "Occupy Animal Farm," "The Last of the Sensitive Bastards," and "Men of Like Passions."
The men enlisted Steven E. Sitzman, a graduate of Niagara University, who composed the music, and participated in writing the lyrics. Sitzman is a trained musical theater actor, who performed for ART of WNY earlier in their production of the musical show "Floyd Collins," as well as Lancaster Opera's productions of "Chorus Line" and "Damn Yankees."
Although McCabe wasn't available on the evening I was able to attend, Karcher and Sitzman described their working relationship, in which they passed words and music back and forth, often by email or on discs, each exchange full of suggestions for new or revised material.
Also present for my visit was Matthew LaChiusa, the founder of the company. Born and raised here in this county, he is an alumnus of Jamestown Community College who has won a number of awards for plays which he has written. More recently, he has turned his attention into being both executive and artistic director of the company, which has now done six seasons, and he believes it has become a recognizable force in the already rich Buffalo theater scene.
Matthew is also known for documentary films which he produced with his brother Thomas LaChiusa. The two have a third brother, Michael John LaChiusa, who has made a prominent name for himself, composing for the stages of Broadway, Off-Broadway and the Lincoln Center Repertory Company.
The "Dracula" musical is the second production in the 2012-13 season for ART of WNY. The season began in September with performances of "The Guys," by Anne Nelson, a play about the coping with the tragedy of Sept. 11 by the first responders and their families.
The weekends of January will see the staging of the play "Jesus Hates Me," by Wayne Lemon. It is an examination of the State of Texas and their curious determination to mix popular culture and religious faith.
In March, the company plans to stage "First Lady Suite," a collection of four short musical examinations of historic First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy. This show was one of the first successes by Michael John LaChiusa.
The season will conclude in late April and early May, with a production of "Moonlight and Magnolias," by Ron Hutchinson. It is a look at the struggles by Producer David O. Selznick and his collaborators to produce a working screenplay based upon Margaret Mitchell's famed novel "Gone With the Wind."
MEETING THE PRODUCTION STAFF
As is often true with new, young companies, ART of WNY is still searching for a way to describe themselves and their mission. They are determined to do works entirely by American playwrights. They have done relative classics, such as "The Gin Game," "Greater Tuna," and "The Man Who Came to Dinner," but their focus is in doing world and regional premieres, encouraging local writers, and giving young actors, musicians, and technical experts, a chance to learn their crafts from the bottom up.
There is a tendency to throw out the occasional shibboleth, such as "a 21st Century Theater Company," but that is, of course, an advertising slogan, ranking up there with "Stronger than dirt." What impresses the observer is their determination to do good, challenging material, from whatever time period, for whatever audience may be affected by it, rather than drawing circles which shut out writers, plays, or audience members.
Sitzman volunteered that "The Dead English" includes 24 original songs, most of which are quite brief, lasting one to two minutes only. Instrumental accompaniment will be performed by Sitzman, who plays guitar, and by violinist Arielle Dye. He believes that the score has an appeal not unlike that of the popular Broadway show "Rent."
The cast includes eight actors, and four chorus members, who the composer says are employed in the play as a Greek chorus, which comments upon, reacts to, and provides background information for the actions and words of the principals.
Lyricist Karcher believes that they have edited much of the Freudian Victorianism out of the original story, and have provided a point of view from "inside the heads" of the characters. Although audience members tend to remember the thick Romanian accent used by actor Bela Lugosi in his several films, portraying the Transylvanian blood drinker, the original Stoker novel is told as a long collection of letters, diary entries, ship logs, and other written material. Neither the Count not his antagonist, Professor Abraham Von Helsing, speak extensively.
He also says that Stoker gives no motives for his characters, assuming that the audience will assume that the vampire is bad and that anyone seeking to stop him is good. "England owned the world's largest empire at the time Stoker was writing. People there grew up believing that being English was good by definition, and that the rest of the world was 'Not English,' having no particular character or morality of their own, so therefore bad," he said.
The men point out that their cast is entirely made of recent college graduates, all in their 20s, and that this was deliberate. "People lived much shorter lives, in those days, and they had to launch themselves into their adult lives sooner. Someone in his 20s would have been considered a full adult, not a young person in training for adulthood," LaChiusa said.
Karcher expressed his observation that there is an unusually large pool of talent in the Buffalo theater scene. "We have a great many theater companies in this area, and many of our colleges and universities have celebrated training programs, both here in the city and in neighboring communities such as Niagara University and the State University at Fredonia. Theater may be the only field of work in which our educated young people are staying in Western New York, and not moving away to find work," he said.
LaChiusa said he hopes that the work being done at ART of WNY will attract new audiences to the theater. People who have never come to plays, but who enjoy hearing singers in clubs or writers they've read, or even just friends from school or the neighborhood, may find their way to one of his company's performances and realize the power and influence of theater.
There was a period which involved a large portion of the 20th century, in which the music profession was largely caught up in the technique of making music. When audiences saw the phrase, "with new, original music," they learned to expect bleeps and honks and sounds which suited those intellectually inclined to music, but which drove the vast majority of the public out of the theaters and concert halls, and into the arms of the panderers who wrote the cute and the pretty, with little thought of what is good.
Now the professions have changed course, and it remains for audiences to recognize that and return. Here is an opportunity for many to take a step in that direction.
THE ORIGINAL STORY
Bram Stoker was a business manager for a professional English theater company, who made some extra money by publishing popular novels, most notably 1897's "Dracula."
The story begins with a young English lawyer, Jonathan Harker, who is sent by his firm to respond to a request from a Transylvanian count, Count Dracula, who has requested advice and assistance in purchasing properties in England.
Transylvania is today a region in the country of Romania, but in Stoker's day, it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which in turn was ruled by the Hapsburg emperors in Vienna.
In the story, the young lawyer learns that the count is a vampire, a centuries-old creature who lives by drinking the blood of living humans. Among the count's supernatural powers is the ability to transform himself into a bat and into a large, vicious dog - some say a wolf. In addition to killing people by drinking their blood, the count can also feed his own blood to them, which transforms them into vampires.
He can enter the minds of those who have tasted his blood, and control their behavior, against their will. While normal weapons are helpless against him, Dracula is unable to survive contact with daylight, and must sleep throughout the day, in a coffin full of his native soil, becoming active only after dark.
Eventually, Dracula moves to England, when an empty ship drifts ashore on the North Sea coast of that country, filled with signs of violence, but no living crew. The young attorney, who has escaped from Castle Dracula and found his way home, seeks help from a Dutch university professor, Abraham Von Helsing, who is an expert in the supernatural.
The count begins to transform the women in Harker's family into his vampire ways, and the original novel is filled with sexual symbolism in which "being bitten" is connected with the sexual act. Eventually, Von Helsing is able to overcome the count, and to free Mina, Harker's fiancee, from her enslavement to him.
The novel ends with Harker's and Mina's future lives, with children and domestic happiness.
Ironically, Stoker never obtained a copyright of his novel, with the result that it has been in the public domain since its first publication. Literally thousands of books, films, plays, operas, and other works of art have been created from the story, each of them offering changes, some slight and some significant, from the original Stoker version.
The young men of ART of WNY have an original and entertaining version which - chances are - will give you food for thought as well as a lot of entertainment. The fun begins on Friday and runs through mid-November. I hope you'll get a chance to look in.