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Review: 'Dracula' at NoHo Arts Center

February 19, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Dracula_2 What better way to honor the endless headline revelations about financial industry bloodsuckers than with a revival of "Dracula?"

Bram Stoker's 1897 tale of a parasitic undead aristocrat draining the life from hapless middle-class victims has undergone countless plot transfusions over the decades. But it was Frank Langella's 1977 Broadway performance that put the final stake in the coffin of Stoker's original concept, re-envisioning the vampire count as a brooding romantic figure -- a whiter shade of Heathcliff, as it were.

Building on this modernist trend, Ken Sawyer's hip, erotically charged staging for NoHo Arts Center spotlights the forbidden -- and reciprocal -- love between Dracula (Robert Arbogast) and the object of his obsession, Lucy (Darcy Jo Martin). Shrewdly employing breakneck, intermission-free pacing and sensational special effects to compensate for the creaky melodrama inherent in its  source (the 1927 Hamilton Dean/John L. Balderston adaptation), the production builds palpable sexual tension between predator and prey. Despite affection for her do-gooder boyfriend (J.R. Mangels), Martin's Lucy succumbs to the overriding truth that evil is -- well, kind of hot. A reincarnation theme lifted from the Francis Ford Coppola film version adds a timeless dimension to their smoldering passion.

Though about as welcome to Stoker purists as a wreath of garlic, all this romantic revisionism helps fill out a role all too often defined by a cape and a kitschy Central European accent. Armed with a fashion sense that's quite forward-looking for the play's 1920s setting, Arbogast's shirtless bad boy Count may have traded in the cape for tight leather pants, but the accent is as cheesy as ever.

His stylized inflections meet their match in Joe Hart's thoroughly committed turn as Dracula's Dutch nemesis, the killjoy know-it-all Van Helsing, who leads the search for the vampire's lair through Dracula's multiple McMansions (talk about your sub-prime mortgage risk). The character of Lucy's guardian parent, the proprietor of an insane asylum, has been skillfully gender-switched for Karesa McElheny, while Alex Robert Holmes brings corporate bailout-quality absurdity to resident loony Renfield's theories of a trickle-down life-force.

Desma Murphy's fabric-swathed Goth set and Sawyer's high-amplitude sound design help deliver all the atmosphere and chills you could ask from a "Dracula" production.

-- Philip Brandes

"Dracula," NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 22. $25. (818) 508-7101, Ext. 7. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Photo: Robert Arbogast, foreground, and Joe Hart. Credit: Michael Lamont.