A must-see for this Friday the 13th is Augustana College’s latest production, “Dracula: a feminist revenge fantasy,” which runs Oct. 12-15.
The Quad Cities regional premiere (at Brunner Theatre Center, 3750 7th Ave., Rock Island), is directed by Jennifer Popple, associate professor of theatre arts and co-chair of the theatre department.
Adapted from Bram Stoker’s immortal 1897 novel, Kate Hamill’s new version (debuted in 2020) offers a more contemporary critique of the gender and sexuality norms of Victorian England, relating those norms to issues of today.
What do we do when “the monsters look just like us?” the play asks. Popple said it’s scary, campy, funny and very pertinent to today.
“It’s a bloody and fun play, but it has sharp teeth in its core message,” she said.
It’s billed as both “terrifying and riotous, Kate Hamill’s imaginative, gender-bending ‘feminist revenge fantasy’ is like no Dracula you’ve ever seen — exploring the nature of predators and reinventing the story as a smart, disquieting, darkly comic drama. Hamill’s signature style and postmodern wit upends this familiar tale of Victorian morality.”
Hamill does a really good job of adapting the same characters from the classic novel, with new spins, the director said this week.
“It’s all faithful to the extent that, if you know Bram Stoker’s novel, it’s all the same characters, and she does a lot of gender swapping in interesting ways,” Popple said. “But it will definitely be familiar to people that love the novel.”
“Part of what I think is really cool about what she does with it is that, it still takes place in Victorian London. And what I think Dracula ends up representing in this is, he offers more, but he delivers exactly the same — which is just control over women,” she said. “He offers them a sort of freedom, but then he enslaves them.”
The main gender swap is having the vampire hunter Van Helsing as an American woman, Popple said.
Van Helsing is described by the playwright: “A female vampire hunter. She takes no crap from anybody. She is badass – and 19th century men do not, as a rule, appreciate it.”
“People will read that from a modern lens, right? This idea of a woman who is educated and is an authority figure, not being respected because she’s a woman,” Popple said.
Hamill created the new Van Helsing partly on a guy in the original novel, a cowboy named Quincy who’s a love interest of Lucy.
In addition to the gender-flipped roles, to female (Renfield and Van Helsing), two brides of Dracula have been expanded in the script, Popple said.
“We read it again last year when I was considering doing the play and when I read the book again, I was like, I wanna know more about these women, like, who are they?” she said. “So we get to know a little bit about their back stories and their business and a lot more of the play. So it’s not a gender flipping, but she certainly expands their role significantly.”
“There’s something about the vampire myth that just, we’re just fascinated by it and it’s just right now it’s kind of enjoying another moment and I’m happy to capture that,” Popple said.
Kate Hamill was named 2017’s Playwright of the Year by the Wall Street Journal. She has been one of the 10 most-produced playwrights in the country, from 2017 to 2020; in both 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, she wrote two of the top 10 most produced plays in the U.S.; many of her plays have been produced internationally.
The Wall Street Journal called the new “Dracula” a “fresh, theatrically potent spin on the novel … Hamill has given us a tremendously entertaining Dracula that has GREAT BIG HIT stamped all over it.”
Hamill’s website says she is “deeply passionate about creating new feminist, female-centered classics, both in new plays and in adaptation – stories that center around complicated women. Her work as a playwright celebrates theatricality, often features absurdity, and closely examines social and gender issues – as well as the timeless struggle to reconcile conscience / identity with social pressures.”
Playcrafters in Moline did her 2014 adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen this past May.
The Augustana cast of nine (with six women) includes 2021 alumnus James Wheeler, who plays the titular character but isn’t necessarily the show star. The New York native performed as a student actor at Augustana in “Boy,” “The Three Musketeers,” “The Crucible” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”
Popple likes to feature Augie alums in the first fall production, as she did last year with Emma Brutman (’18), who was set designer for “Tartuffe.” James Wheeler (who graduated in 2021) has taught and acted the past two years in North Carolina and recently moved to Chicago.
“I just thought, let’s keep going with this alum involvement in this first show. And so we thought, what if we have an actor come in and he’s supposed to be this immortal person,” Popple said of Dracula. “He’s been around for a long time. So I thought, having an alum who can bring in a little bit more of that maturity and that gravity to this role. It works out casting wise and it’s a really great opportunity for the students.”
Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 (or free for Augustana students; $12 for senior citizens; $10 for faculty, staff, students and children), available HERE.