You can't keep a good theatrical warhorse down - even with a stake through the heart and its head whacked off.
So just in time for a certain pagan October celebration, Illinois State University's School of Theatre is putting a spade to the grave, all the better to disinter one of the most enduring of all stage barnstormers, Bram Stoker's "Dracula."
And they're doing it with some new blood, including a series of eerie magical illusions by an associate of magic team Penn & Teller (see accompanying story).
More temptingly, the "look" of ISU's Count Dracula is considered so, um, unusual, it's being kept under wraps until opening night (7:30 p.m. Oct. 24, with performances straight through Halloween weekend).
The Transylvanian bloodsucker's adventures in Victorian London have been thrilling stage and screen audiences for more than 80 years now.
The adaptation ISU is using is a more recently (1996) refurbished take by American playwright Steven Dietz.
Ironically, one of its claims to fame is that it is more faithful to the Stoker novel than many of its freely adapted predecessors, including the 1924 Hamilton Dean stage original (basis for the legendary 1931 film version with Bela Lugosi).
But it rearranges and elides along the way, mentioning characters like Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, but not showing them, and turning Jonathan Harker's Transylvanian trip to Castle Dracula into a flashback.
At the same time, notes director Christopher Morino, it avoids the temptation to camp it up and spoof the 1924 version's arch theatrics, something not resisted in the celebrated Broadway revival of the 1970s movie with Frank Langella.
There is humor inherent in some of the dialogue and situations, the director says, but no one in the cast will be throwing knowing winks to the audience.
Along the way, subtle design embellishments will up the ante of edginess, including some near-subliminal fudging with the Victorian time frame.
Morino calls it a legacy of the alternative design movement known as "steampunk," which takes the modern and makes it look Victorian.
That may explain why some of the fashions don't really add up in the traditional Victorian sense (women's hemlines are cut higher) and why some of the highly choreographed movements of the undead have an Asian vibe running through them.
More than anything, though, ISU's "Dracula" is zeroing in on the reverberations that follow in the wake of what Morino calls "this foreigner, this person from a place they don't know - a dark land quite foreboding in and of itself."
Foreboding, that is, to Victorian London, where every desire known to man is kept buttoned down or bottled up.
"Dracula represents a being that, in some ways, awakens a sense of sexuality in Victorian women and is threatening to the Victorian male. The last thing the Victorian male wanted was his wife throwing her corset away and finding that sort of sense of an animalistic quality."
But throw and find they do.
To conjure that sense of sudden sensual eruption in a new and unsettling way, Morino says "I knew that in our modern day that the guy with the cape and tuxedo isn't so scary anymore, that archetype doesn't work for us."
What the ISU production is latching onto is Stoker's core idea "of a being who is neither human nor all the way an unrecognizable creature - he's an in-between, an 'other.' So our primary function is to set up a being with an entirely different vocabulary than we would normally be comfortable with. All we know is that we're uncomfortable watching this person - but we can't stop watching him."
If Morino and his cast and crew have their way with us, this is one "Dracula" that we won't be able to stop watching.
Even as we try to suppress the urge to scream.
At a glance
What: "Dracula," adapted by Steven Dietz
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24-25 and Oct. 28-Nov. 1, 2 p.m. Oct. 26
Where: Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: Adults, $15; students/seniors, $10
Box office number: (309) 438-2535
Following is a chronological roundup of the movies' Top 10 famous Draculas:
1. Max Schreck
Sound-bite: most famous silent Dracula (via 1922's "Nosferatu")
2. Bela Lugosi
Sound-bite: best/most famous Dracula ever, despite playing him just twice on screen (1931's "Dracula"; 1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein")
3. Gloria Holden
Sound-bite: only major femme vamp (via 1936's "Dracula's Daughter")
4. Lon Chaney Jr.
Sound-bite: stockiest, flattest-accented Dracula (courtesy 1943's "Son of Dracula")
5. John Carradine
Sound bite: slimmest Dracula; second only to Chris Lee in number of times (3) played Dracula on screen (1944's "House of Frankenstein," 1945's "House of Dracula," 1966's "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula"
6. Christopher Lee
Sound bite: tallest and most prolific Dracula (10 times: 1958's "Horror of Dracula," 1966's "Dracula, Prince of Darkness," 1968's "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave," 1970's "Taste the Blood of Dracula," 1970's "Count Dracula," 1971's "Scars of Dracula," 1972's "Dracula A.D. 1972," 1973's "The Satanic Rites of Dracula"; cameos as Dracula in 1969's "The Magic Christian" and 1971's "One More Time")
7. Louis Jourdan
Sound bite: first Gallic-accented Dracula (1968 BBC version aired on PBS in U.S.)
8. Jack Palance
Sound bite: Dracula with best/scariest cheekbones (1973 TV-movie version)
9. Frank Langella
Sound bite: smarmiest Dracula; most disco-ready Dracula (per his blown-dry Travolta-by-Transylvania 'do)
10. Gary Oldman
Sound bite: hammiest Dracula (chews necks AND scenery)
Consultant brings magic moments to 'Dracula'
By Dan Craft | firstname.lastname@example.org
NORMAL - Matt Holtzclaw is not a creature of the night, per se.
Most of his work is done by the light of day, as a technical consultant for magic-comedy duo Penn & Teller, not to mention as a practitioner of magic himself.
But since he's been hired to produce a series of eye-opening moments for Illinois State University's production of "Dracula," he's been poking around after hours in blood, bones and worse.
A friend of the production's director, Christopher Morino, Holtzclaw was solicited to perform some stage magic on a tight budget, but packing at least one (Morino's term) "holy crap!" moment.
Holtzclaw assures us that that "hc!" moment is going to be delivered, and it involves a before-our-eyes reduction of a man to bones, and maybe worse (blood will spill, per his own special recipe).
Having worked on a wild-and-wooly production of "Macbeth," co-directed by Teller, he's no stranger to the concept of theater and magic interfacing in the context of a classic stage drama.
Morino says he was looking for someone who "could give us a lot of bang for our buck - very little technical buck."
Holtzclaw made Morino smile when he said "the best illusions are the ones you can do for less than $25."
But, more importantly, "Matt also has an interest in historical magic, and every effect we do in the show has been around for 100 years or more, at least since the days of Grand Guignol (the Parisian theater tradition awash in graphic gore and buckets of blood)."
In fact, Teller himself, in his own Web site's blog, calls Holtzclaw "an expert in Grand Guignol effects, and a very fine magician."
Holtzclaw crossed paths with Teller three years ago and forged an association that has continued to this day (he works with Penn & Teller on the illusions for their Las Vegas show).
But he hasn't forgotten his humbler roots.
"I've spent most of my life working in community theater, where you just have to make do," Holtzclaw notes of his "$25" credo. "Some of the best magic, you can buy at a drugstore or hardware store."
Still, Holtzclaw promises jolts beyond the man-into-bones moment, including full-view stakings through hearts, views where that blood recipe comes in handy.
What's more, characters will pop in and out of view with startling suddenness.
"My friend Teller calls magic 'the unwilling suspension of disbelief,'" notes Holtzclaw in discussing an average audience's innate resistance to being fooled by sleight of hand.
In Holtzclaw's view of his art, "Magic should make us feel as if we've lost our minds briefly - that we're looking through the eyes of a crazy person briefly."
If he's done his job the way he hopes to do "Dracula," a lot of crazy eyes will be aimed at the Center for the Performing Arts Theatre proscenium come Halloween week.