Reviewed by Marc Wheeler

A pale bare leg sneaking out a naughty nighty blocks my entrance through the theater door. Slowly it recedes and bids me welcome to watch a coterie of scantily-clad succubi commix with frenzied dames in an erotic, erratic ballet. Lush maroons and dead blacks color the walls, lit dimly by a candelabra chandelier. Leading lady Mina — bright-eyed and mummified in a flowing red dress — stands underneath, as rich, repetitive orchestrations enhance the dance of hysteria that around her swirls.

So begins The 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company’s LA Premiere of Dracula adapted from the classic Bram Stoker novel by playwright Jayce Johnson. Sophia Watt returns as director after a 2014 run in New York City.

For the unbitten, Dracula follows the story of solicitor Jonathan Harker (Jordan Wall) and his dutiful, yet flowering-feminist fiancée Mina Murray (Rachel Zink) whose lives are about to take a tenebrific turn. When Jonathan embarks on business to a castle in Transylvania he’s blissfully unaware his journey will lead to a dead — make that undead — end. Count Dracula (Robert Homer Mollohan), the castle’s master and chief resident vampire, greets the innocent one with blood-hungry fangs and a swarm of succubi (Isabel Wagner, Caroline Henry, Kara Gibson and Anna Yosin) who long to feed his innermost sexual desires. Back in the UK, Mina’s best friend Lucy Westenra (Ariel Hart) fends off her Victorian mother (Perry Smith) whose puritanical ideals on love and marriage are much too suffocating for Lucy, now being courted by three handsome suitors: American cowboy Quincey P. Morris (Kenneth James), insane asylum administrator Dr. John Seward (Jude Evans), currently overseeing mental patient R.M. Renfield (Kristin Lerner) whose connected to the Count by a telepathic vampirical cord, and the Honorable Arthur Holmwood (Diego Maureira) who eventually proposes and wins our lovely Lucy, his eye-wandering prize. It’s not long before Dracula arrives on the scene and tries in “vein” to convert the living, cueing the infamous Dr. Van Helsing (David Caprita) to lead the gang in kicking some serious vampire ass. Stakes are raised in matters of the heart and blood is quickly shed. Lots (and lots) of blood.

Over a century later, this modern retelling of the infamous gothic tale shines its candle closest to the gender politics in the text. Though largely a worthwhile exploration, heavy-handed dialogue occasionally places “message” over naturalism. Still, one can’t help but walk away understanding how social pressures can literally drive women batty.

Performances across the board are certainly committed, though horror on stage is quite the challenge. Many moments get laughs, intended or not. And sexuality, a prominent life force in the veins of this production, is pumping hard. When it works (from both our male and female players) it’s quite titillating, though occasionally it tries too hard and could “amp the vamp” with more subtlety and mystery.

Mollohan’s “I am… Draaacula” is characteristically Bela Lugosi in sound and manner, though his look is completely original. Like a hunky, bestial caveman meets a fashionably young Karl Lagerfeld, this Adrian Grenier-esque hipster with an androgynous Frank N. Furter flair has eyes and fangs that equally pierce. Caprita’s Van Helsing, though often strong, sprinkles too much humor that tonally alters the flow. Wall’s Jonathan is equal parts nerdy-sensitive and hunky-boytoy while Zink’s intelligent, classically beautiful Mina reveals a woman torn between societal expectations and personal desires. The script’s demand of Mina’s erotic liberation, however, creates an out-of-the-blue transition, whereas Hart’s Lucy appropriately voices the fiery passions of a woman who refuses to give in to rigid female sexuality. Lerner’s gender-swapped Renfield is a bold choice (“female hysteria” being a medical diagnosis of the time), though her in-and-out of self-awareness is confusingly ill-crafted despite a solid, crazed performance by Lerner.

Eerily stark lighting and set design by Danny Cistone beautifully complements the hypnotically grand sound design and compositions of Haunted Ghost. Lighting and sound operations are by Chris Kelly. Costume design by Marie Von Arx combines elements of period and modern that, though individually effective and even striking, feels a bit unclear as a unified whole. Ferocious fight choreography by Anna Yosin provides wide-smiled entertainment. Pale-skinned, red-eyed makeup for Dracula by Joshua Ballze is haunting, while special effects makeup and blood design by Emma Servant makes for monstrous displays of carnage.

Ronnie Marmo is producer. Emily Juliani is stage manager.

As Halloween approaches and theater-goers, date-nighters and horror-buffs alike leave their coffins in search of thrills, those desiring genuine tension, dread, startles or scares may want to look elsewhere. That being said, the seductive, politically-charged, gore-soaked romp that is Theatre 68’s Dracula, though not necessarily the greatest of theater, is amusing enough to tide over savage appetites in pursuit of bah-luuuud.