The Captivating Seduction of Van Helsing's Dracula
A mysterious letter from Abrianna Van Helsing invites Ashley and I to a banquet where our hostess promises us “an enchanted evening of dazzling entertainment and spectacular fare.” Knowing little of what to expect from an immersive, circus dinner theatre show, we don our best vampiric attire, joining a crowd of red and black, and see what the evening will have in store for us. Over the course of our meal we hear an enrapturing, transformative tale, and our hosts spin a visually captivating narrative of power and desire, seducing us into the sapphic, vampiric story.
The best way to describe this show is truly as a seduction. From the moment we enter, the ensemble (suggestively named Dracula’s Harem) begins to introduce us to the immersive, circus nature of the show. They spin plates on sticks as they weave in out of the dining table spaces, seeing who they can coyly sneak up on. We settle into the space with bread and salad preset and soon the lights begin to dim. A voice flows into the space, as we meet our hostess Abrianna Van Helsing. Katie Rediger offers a captivating performance in this role, navigating her character’s conflicts between powerlessness and control wonderfully. Abrianna begins her tale of her unnamed beloved and herself falling in love, accepting an invitation to a banquet with Countess Dracula, and becoming entranced by her vampirism. Lala Araki’s innocence and idealism as The Lover electrically counters Frankie Tan’s dominating and viscous portrayal of Dracula.
The structure of the show clearly alternates between a unique acrobatic circus set up paired with a single story beat and breaks during which our meal progresses from appetizer through dinner and dessert, ending with Dracula’s Goblet. Each act had poetic narration from our hostess and live music while impressive acrobatic acts depict the story of Abrianna and her lover finding themselves further and further entrapped by Dracula. The story told of desirous relationships is undisputedly sexual, though largely through the power dynamics at play and suggestions (albeit extremely clear ones) in the choreography. Despite the content suggested through circusry and poetry, the piece lives more in its intensely dominant and submissive dynamics than in explicit sexuality, and actors, though wearing often revealing costumes, stay fully clothed.
Abrianna’s voice guides us through the story, drawing us into her perspective and her dual victimhood and empowerment. The sound design of her speaking voice create an intimacy with her, sounding as though it comes from everywhere in the auditorium at once while also sounding as though she’s speaking straight into our ears. Her voice intermixes well with the live music, which also clues us into when we transition in and out of act breaks. Other design choices that stood out elevated the acrobatic circus acts, which were entrancingly choreographed by creator Sarah Mann and the cast to depict the power dynamics of the entrapment in the story. The combination of Kelly Maglia’s costume design and this choreography also led to visually exciting moments, including one notable one wherein ropes that had been non-functionally worn by actors throughout the piece became heavily featured in a key narrative moment. Derek Jones’ lighting design was also sensually and emotionally evocative, aligning with the overall non-literal and visual nature of the piece, providing beautiful beginnings and ends to acts, and accentuating key moments.
Our immersion into the story is largely as spectators, though our spectatorship is clearly referenced and called upon. As our invitation establishes, we have been invited as dinner guests, a passive role we immersively inhabit. Though mostly neither participatory nor interactive, the immersive nature of the show exists in this invitation and dinner guest role. The invitation also creates book ends to the show’s introduction and conclusion, its immersive question lurking in the background of the story, though admittedly forgotten by at least myself within the spectacle and story unfolding in the moments between these starting and ending points.
By giving us a role as invited dinner guests, the piece takes an immersive step beyond regular dinner theatre, though this or an acrobatic circus are the easiest points of comparison. As mentioned, there’s light interaction with Dracula’s harem before the piece. We briefly conversed with our hosts during one act break. Occasionally during the acts, the ensemble performs from within the audience. And, characters address many lines directly to us. This role as dinner guests felt clearly designed as a way for the show to provide an immersive framework to the poetry, visuals, and choreography of the show’s main content. Occasionally, the interactive or writing choices disrupted the immersive narrative to our role of dinner guests being told a story by Abrianna Van Helsing. Primarily, I wished we only heard Abrianna’s voice in the space, to give her full power over the story, since it became so clear by the end that the story we were getting was entirely from her perspective. Brief moments of Dracula speaking during her introduction or The Lover speaking to us between acts decreased some of Abrianna’s narrative power and control, a power which crucially contributed to the excitement of the piece’s ending moments and its answer to the immersive question posed in our invitation. These moments were outliers within the show, though. In the act breaks, the immersion lessened as we made conversation with each other and strangers at our table over our meals. We clearly spoke about the show as a fictional piece, perhaps not fully immersively acting as Abrianna’s guests, but also had a valuable opportunity to connect over our shared experience. On the whole the idea of being told the story by our hostess as an act of seduction felt expertly woven together with different key pieces of the show including its poetry, acrobatics, music, and dining experiences.
From an immersive production design standpoint, the seams of the piece show a little, but overall aligned with the presentational nature of the show. The meal and catering delivery were the least designed. We noted a couple of places where detailing could have elevated the piece -- I wished for real candles, and Ashley wished for non-plastic drink glasses. Additionally, at least half of our table struggled in some ways with ordering drinks via a QR code on the menu. The meal itself gave us delightfully themed flavors in the world with pre-selected steak, chicken, and vegetarian options available. Aside from the meal service, we could see the tech placement upstairs and watch stage hands change the sets between acts. None of these details particularly detracted, or at least not in a strong way, especially due to the nature of the piece as presentational and our immersive role as onlookers to a show.
Thematically and narratively, retelling a classic tale like Dracula in a queer context opens up some space for conversations surrounding ideas of power and its overlap with gender and sexuality. Primarily, I’d place the value of the piece in its spectacle and entertainment, but if an audience wants to give it more thought, there’s definitely ideas to explore. The adaptation of Dracula works functionally to aid the piece as well. The style of the show can become abstract in places, which works to an emotionally and sensually evocative effect. And, for the most part, the text provides explanations for key moments. Additionally, though, using the story of Dracula as a basis allows the audience a common vocabulary to fill in any spaces. It also creates assumptions surrounding power and seduction that the show will play with. And, in queering the story of Dracula, the piece takes the established classic and distills its essence, heightening the key moments and ideas, scrapping details that don’t service the story they wish to tell, and giving queer life to a classic -- and traditionally heteronormative -- story.
Van Helsing’s Dracula ultimately left us feeling as though we had been captivated and beguiled by a modern, vampiric banquet and performance. In terms of its story, the abstract and queer retelling of Dracula provided a sense of wonder and continued curiosity. Immersively, our dinner guest role worked to make this lightly immersive in a way that, while could have been a little more seamless, conceptually worked. The ticket price is a bit steep, but the entrancing show provides a nice meal, immersive story, and visual experience for those that want to shell out for a more luxurious experience. Our biggest surprise was exactly how seductive the show would be -- and lifting our glass in a final toast at the end of the performance, we found ourselves fully won over.
Editor’s Notes: This review was written after seeing Van Helsing’s Dracula on November 4th with complimentary press tickets. For more information about the show, including how to find tickets for the upcoming performances on November 11th and 18th, go to http://www.vanhelsingsdracula.com/.