The vampire hunter versus the vampire in Zoetic Stage's Dracula.EXPAND
The vampire hunter versus the vampire in Zoetic Stage's Dracula.
Chris Headshots

Zoetic Stage's Dracula Reflects Real-World Monsters

The #MeToo Movement has shed light on the misconduct of numerous men in power: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and now... Count Dracula?

When South Florida playwright Michael McKeever set out to bring the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the stage, he wanted it to stand out from the countless adaptations, remakes, and sequels about the bloodsucker from Transylvania.

McKeever is the cofounder and managing director of Zoetic Stage, a South Florida-based theater company known for alternative interpretations of existing works. As part of a creative partnership with the Adrienne Arsht Center, McKeever is finally telling the story — with a unique twist that was years in the making.

“I’ve been wanting to write Dracula now for five, six years, but I wanted to come up with a reason that made it something special,” McKeever says. “I kept asking myself, What’s going to make my Dracula different?

When the #MeToo movement began to gain traction, McKeever started to connect the dots between Dracula and the stories of real-life monsters popping up in the news. After completing the first draft of his Dracula, McKeever reread its source material. To his surprise, the events of Stoker’s century-old novel seemed timely. It was after revisiting the novel that he began to notice the story’s relevance to the modern world.

“You would be astounded at the monster that Dracula is... what a metaphor he is for the typical man who is making headlines in the world today,” McKeever says. “You read about the claims of President Trump or Bill O’Reilly and the presumption that just because they are wealthy and white and famous that they have this power to do whatever they want to whomever they want.”

McKeever finally had his own take on the Dracula story: a rich, powerful man with an absolute disregard for the women on whom he preys. But the novel is simply a starting point for Zoetic’s production. Only “the first 20 minutes” bear any resemblance to Stoker’s material, but the sexuality of the Dracula story remains intact. In fact, the rest of the Zoetic Stage team was drawn to the idea of Dracula getting caught up in modern gender politics.

“Theater is a political beast,” Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer says on his way to a Dracula rehearsal before the production’s debut Thursday, October 11. “Theater should always have its hand on the pulse of society.”

In addition to keeping with the cultural conversation, the Zoetic team had a creative hurdle to overcome: How do you humanize a character whose various portrayals in film and television make him appear anything but human? Dracula needed to be the polar opposite of the fanged fop from Party City. In McKeever’s words, Dracula is the “ultimate predator.”

The creative team at Zoetic went to great lengths to portray the character as someone who could believably coerce both women and men into joining his army of the undead. Dracula needs to be a charming, true-to-life sociopath, not a Halloween costume.

Dracula is "the ultimate predator," playwright Michael McKeever says.EXPAND
Dracula is "the ultimate predator," playwright Michael McKeever says.
Chris Headshots

“We have to not make him a stereotype,” Meltzer says of avoiding the clichéd Dracula that audiences commonly associate with Bela Lugosi’s campy black-and-white interpretation of the character or Adam Sandler’s wide-eyed Tex Avery homage in the Hotel Transylvania trilogy. “The first thing we had to do was make the man real. Even though he may not be human, we need to make sure the character has a clear sense of goals and desires and things that he’s worked for and building up his life.”

Just like the horror stories coming out of the #MeToo movement, this story of Dracula paints a picture in explaining how its antagonist was able to get away with his treachery for such a long time. As Meltzer puts it: “There has to be a reason these women and men get caught up in his spell.”

But the titular character isn’t the only component of the original novel getting a 21st-century makeover. The character of vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing has been reworked to be played by actress and frequent Zoetic collaborator Karen Stephens, a woman of color.

Regarding his decision to reimagine the character, McKeever says, “Because of the uniqueness of having a professor who’s well regarded and well respected but no one has any idea it’s in fact a woman who’s writing these books... [That] became a very fun thing to play with as a writer to introduce her and her point of view, which is a catalyst for the change that’s happening.”

McKeever elaborates on the change that’s happening in the play and, perhaps, in the real world. He believes Dracula represents the Old World. It’s a world run by powerful old men, bound to crumble under the “glare of modernity.”

It was important to the Zoetic team to broach subjects such as gender and race but to do it in a way that's not seen as preachy. When McKeever began writing the play, it was focused on the political aspects, but Meltzer reminded him they “still want to entertain.”

“There’s a fine line between beating something over the head to get a point across and trusting your audience to get it,” Meltzer says. “People go to the theater for enlightenment, but they also need it to escape because we are in blood-sucking times.”

They believe they found the right balance of social commentary and popcorn entertainment. According to McKeever, the scenes between the scares are just as important as the scares themselves. A thriller with substance is not unlike modern horror, but it’s also unfamiliar territory for Zoetic.

“We’ve never tried to do a gothic thriller onstage, and so it’s been a lot of fun exploring that and making it not only thought-provoking but also to scare people,” McKeever says. “We want people to be jumping in their seats.”

Dracula. Thursday, October 11, through Sunday, October 28, at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $50.

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