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A back-to-the-basics Dracula

Randall Theatre's production of "Dracula" is a provocative new take on a tale we never get tired of. The play, with a script by Peter Wickliffe, who also directed, opened Friday night in the Randall's downtown Medford digs with Robin Downward in the role of the bloodsucking count.

The play's title character has of course been the subject of countless schlocky films, plays, books, TV shows, video games and a sugary breakfast cereal. The silent classic "Nosferatu" (1922) and Universal's 1931 "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi (itself an adaptation of a stage adaptation of the same name) pretty much staked out the modern vampire territory, and it was all downward (sorry) from there.

After a lifetime surrounded by this kind of folderol, the contemporary viewer may experience Wickliffe's version as a fresh, even radical approach. It is novel precisely in its steadfast refusal to mine the story for novelties. Even more than Francis Ford Coppola in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," Wickliffe has stayed true to Stoker's story.

The tale is played straight. There's no irony, signifying, distancing or any postmodern funny business. If we catch notes of the Gothic, colonialism, Victorian sexuality, escape, invasion paranoia and whatever, that's Stoker, not Wickliffe vamping on Stoker.

The action begins with Jonathan Harker (Chris Horton), a young solicitor, riding in a horse-drawn coach to the Transylvania home of his company's client, Count Dracula. The count has retained the firm in connection with a big real estate transaction he's attempting in London. The previous man on the job, Renfield (Tyler Ward), had some kind of breakdown and now spends his days eating flies to draw their life force.

Stoker's book was an epistolary novel told by letters, diaries and so on, and we begin getting the story as Harker, who soon finds he has become a prisoner in Dracula's decaying castle, keeps a journal and writes to his beloved, Wilhelmina (Mina) Murray (Kendra Taylor). After narrowly escaping the sex-and-violence-laden designs of three of Dracula's female vampire minions, who may remind you of The Fates, Shakespeare's weird sisters and numerous other really scary women, Harker eventually makes his way to Budapest, where he's joined by Mina.

In a sub-plot, Dracula turns up in England, where he stalks and eventually bites Lucy Westenra (Meagan Kirby), Mina's devoted best friend. Lucy has accepted the proposal of Arthur Holmwood (Brett Garrett) while declining those of Dr. John Seward (John Oles) and Quincey Morris (Tyler Ward, doubling). The three men remain friends, and all are devoted to Lucy as the psychic bond between Lucy and Dracula grows.

Seward, fearing the worst, calls in his old mentor, Van Helsing (Eric Epstein) — who else you gonna call with a vampire problem? — and we are on familiar ground as the story changes from a mystery to a battle, and the battle lines become clear.

All this is rendered in a series of short, spare scenes with little or no backgrounding. Scene changes are done as the lights dim to ambient, with suitably eerie music.

It helps if you know the story (you may only think you do), but it's not necessary. The overall effect is cinematic, with scenes cutting almost breathlessly to others.

The old movie effect is underscored by the black-and-white set and costumes. Characters even wear whiteface in some scenes. Red lighting hints of blood, and it gets stronger as the play progresses.

The whole thing has only a vague plot, Dracula's pursuit of Mina, to hold it together. "He is coming for me," she declares. So it comes off as a sort of extended visual dialogue. Dracula even disappears from the whole middle section of the play, although his influence is still felt.

All the usual vampire paraphernalia is here: coffins containing the count's native soil, garlic, crucifixes, wooden stakes, ESP, that pesky sunshine problem.

Wickliffe seems to see Dracula a bit like a tragic hero, doomed by his flaw to suffer. He's terrifying, and certainly not sympathetic, but he's driven by his condition and takes no gratuitous pleasure in the evil he does.

The ending of this "Dracula" is slender and uncomfortably abrupt, leaving us with a was-that-it? feeling. Maybe we want more catharsis than Stoker is willing to provide. Or maybe we want an Albany or an Edgar to sum it up for us. But that wouldn't be in the spirit of the thing.

"Dracula" plays at 1 p.m. today, at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 18-20, and at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 20-21, at the Randall Theater at the corner of Front and 3rd streets, in Medford, plus Saturday and Sunday matinees. Admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis. See randalltheatre.com.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.