University Theatre version of “Dracula” strives for more authenticity

If you go

“Dracula” opens Friday on the Crafton-Preyer stage of Murphy Hall at Kansas University and runs Oct. 5, 6, 18, 19 and 20. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.

If you want to play the title role in Dennis Christilles’ new adaptation of “Dracula,” you’d better be prepared not to have a lot of stage time.

“Physically, Dracula doesn’t appear that much in the book,” said Christilles, University Theatre’s artistic director, of the Bram Stoker classic. “He’s a presence that’s felt, but he doesn’t spend that much time interacting with the other characters.”

Christilles has been a fan of the most famous vampire novel in literary history for a long time. He’s always wanted to develop his own theatrical adaptation, and Friday night he finally gets his chance on the Kansas University stage.

“I think we all have one of those books we read off and on since high school,” he says. “We keep going back to it at different points in our lives. ‘Dracula’ is that novel for me. I’m fascinated by the characters. Stoker arranged the book so there’s not just one hero, and the action centers around not just one conflict.”

Adapting one of the most famous stories in film and literature is a daunting task. Christilles was mindful of the challenge of faithfully adapting the book to the stage.

“The Bela Legosi film is the iconic story of Dracula in America,” he says. “That’s what people are expecting.”

But the Legosi film, and most of the other versions for both screen and stage, focus on the vampire himself. Playwright Dean Hamilton secured permission from Stoker’s widow to adapt the novel to stage, and he discovered that Dracula was not there much.

“His solution was to bring him into direct interaction with the other characters,” Christilles explains, “and that became the standard interpretation, but it was not the original concept.”

“Dracula” follows an epistolary format. Much of the story is told through journal entries, letters, newspaper articles and the like. Christilles felt that to do a faithful interpretation he needed to keep that concept.

“A character comes forward on stage and starts reading a journal entry or a letter,” he says. “And then the action comes alive for us.”

Christilles, who is also directing the new production, believes his approach makes Dracula a more sinister, more frightening figure. The audience doesn’t see the vampire often, but they feel his presence, they know what he’s doing.

“Film is a medium that often shows you horror directly,” he notes. “In stage, the audience has to use its imagination. By doing it Stoker’s way and having us hear about him from the characters, having us see them reacting, Dracula inspires the audience’s imagination.”

Christilles also feels that standard interpretations focus too much on the monster and the vampire legend. But Stoker’s novel reveals the Victorian sense of xenophobia.

“There’s a real sense of distrust of foreigners,” he says. “Dracula is an invader. It’s clear he is a general. He will take over the entire country if he’s not stopped.”

Stoker was also bringing up the emerging consciousness of women and their role in society. Mina Harker, whom Dracula becomes obsessed with, is not just a damsel in distress.

“(She) is a very strong character,” Christilles notes. “She moves things forward. She puts together the various clues. She is very much a powerhouse.”

There are a lot of interpretations of “Dracula” both for stage and film, but Christilles is hoping his is more authentic.

“All my decisions were based upon, ‘Is that in the novel?’” he says.

By de-emphasizing the vampire’s physical presence and giving voice to the many characters who encounter him, Christilles believes he can restore Bram Stoker’s classic novel to its original intent.

“It’s a play about people and how they deal with crisis,” he says of his interpretation. “How they interact with each other rather than with Dracula. That’s what’s really interesting.”

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