Christopher Lee as the 1958 screen Dracula. Left: Photo by Dan Bianchi, Alexandra Loren and Shelleen Kostabi kick it vampire-style.
Can you hear the blood tonight
Dracula is back from the grave and headed for the Village
By WILL McKINLEY
Thanks to the chaste bloodsuckers of “Twilight” and the randy rednecks of HBO’s “True Blood,” 2008 may well be remembered as the Year of the Vampire. But, for Dan Bianchi, the real Year of the Vampire happened half a century ago.
“In 1958 a British company called Hammer Films came out with ‘Horror of Dracula’ starring Christopher Lee,” Bianchi said in a telephone interview. “I grew up with that, and the other Dracula films Hammer made from the late ‘50s until the mid-1970s. They were sexy and bloody and, for the first time, in color. They left a lasting impression on me.”
So lasting, in fact, that the longtime Village resident has decided to (unofficially) resurrect Hammer’s version of the sanguinivorous Transylvanian count for the off-off-Broadway stage. Bianchi’s “RadioTheatre presents Dracula” adaptation opened recently at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street, but don’t expect to see black capes, bared fangs or spurting blood. In fact, you shouldn’t expect to see anything at all.
“Imagine if we tried to do this for real and keep it affordable. It would be pathetic,” Bianchi said. “We don’t have the funding to provide those kinds of visuals. I don’t even know if Disney has the funding. So I decided to strip it down and bring it back to where theater started: as storytelling in the dark, around a camp fire or a candle.”
The four-year-old RadioTheatre project marries the immersive aural experience of classic radio drama with the shared intimacy of experimental theater. This time around, Bianchi has transmogrified a cinematic take on the Bram Stoker novel into a unique hybrid of live performance, sound effects and original music. He fills the small stage with seven actors standing before microphones, telling the tale recitation-style, bridged by “meanwhile, back at the castle” narration. Add a few light cues and an over-worked fog machine (note to asthmatics: bring your rescue inhaler) and the rest is up to the audience.
“It’s theater of the mind,” said Frank Zilinyi, a deep-piped RadioTheatre veteran who plays Dracula. “It’s not just a passive experience. You really have to engage your imagination and get involved with what’s happening around you.”
RadioTheatre’s recent efforts have included a New York Innovative Theater Award-winning festival of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classics and a 100 percent gorilla-free production of “King Kong.” Although his shows have been popular with what Bianchi calls a “loyal audience” of sci-fi and horror fans, he admits that attendees are occasionally under-whelmed by his audio-centric theatrical conceit.
“I had a critic who came to see our ‘King Kong’ and she was disappointed,” Bianchi said. “I mean, you didn’t really expect to see a 40-foot-tall ape on stage, did you? This isn’t ‘The Lion King.’”
RadioTheatre newcomer Shelleen Kostabi, who plays virginal heroine Mina Harker, acknowledges a learning curve amongst first-timers on both sides of the proscenium.
“It’s a whole new way of working for me. You’re tempted to turn to your fellow actor and have interaction with them, but you can’t,” she said. “Everything is directed out to the audience. Sometimes I see people looking around like, ‘Oh, okay. The actors aren’t going to move.’ But after the first couple minutes, they settle in and realize they have the opportunity to imagine the story in their heads, just the way they’d like to see it.”
In that regard, the Hammer approach is a counter-intuitive choice for a non-visual adaptation. The nine Dracula films produced by Hammer (seven starring Lee) are hyperbolic visual orgies that bridge the historic and stylistic gap between the atmospheric, black & white horror classics of the 1930s and ’40s and the highly sexualized, ultra-violent gore-fests of the modern era. In the Hammer milieu (which Kostabi calls “cheesy, but fun”), the blood is cartoonishly copious and redder than anything ever spilled from man or beast. The bosoms are always ample, often heaving and frequently bared in a manner inconsistent with the Victorian setting. The music is rib-rockingly Wagnerian and as subtle as a wooden stake through your left ventricle. But with the menacing, red-eyed, six-foot six-inch Christopher Lee looming over all of the B Grade mishegas, the Hammer films remain iconic – particularly for a generation of men who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s. So, without the sex, the blood and (arguably) the scariest Dracula ever, what’s left for the stage?
“Well, I do have a couple of good looking girls in the cast,” Bianchi said. “I am trying to sell a show here. And the original music is a major component. But the sound of voices is the most important thing to me, how they blend together. It’s like putting together a musical group. You can’t make a group with four saxophone players.”
Bianchi has taken great consideration in assembling and refining his vocal ensemble, but his casting of Zilinyi in the lead role turns out to be particularly inspired.
“My father is actually a Hungarian immigrant,” Zilinyi said. “So I grew up around this thick accent my entire life, which I brought to the character. I try not to be stereotypical or to do a caricature, but there is an ethnic tie-in.”
A purist might point out that Zilinyi’s vocal stylings are far more reminiscent of Bela Lugosi’s scenery-chewing cape swinger than Christopher Lee’s cool Count, but that sort of fanboy nitpicking doesn’t interest Bianchi.
“We’re inspired by Hammer, but we’re not doing a tribute to them, or to Christopher Lee. What we’re doing here is a whole new version. I draw a little bit from this, a little from that and I make it my own,” Bianchi said. “Frank has great versatility with accents and dialects. He also plays Renfield and the innkeeper in the show, and that means I don’t need to hire two more actors.”
And that’s a significant point because, as anyone who’s been reading their 401(k) statements knows, this year will be remembered for a lot more than vampires.
“In these troubled economic times, let’s do this together,” Bianchi said. “We’ll bring some great actors, music and sound effects. You bring your imagination and twenty bucks, and together we’ll put on a show.”