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Bloodlust: AU’s Dracula Will Examine Sex, Gender, and Power

By Gregg Sangillo

The AU theatre production will depict a darker, less romanticized Dracula.

The AU theatre production will depict a darker, less romanticized Dracula.

“And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill,” observed Jonathan Harker, a character in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Echoing Harker’s words, the Dracula story has a timeless quality that transcends culture and generation.

Yet since it’s been adapted countless times, making Dracula fresh and relevant can appear as intimidating as that blood sucking vampire’s Transylvania castle.

“It’s really hard, really scary, and really fun,” says Carl Menninger, an assistant professor in American University’s Department of Performing Arts.

Menninger—with help from fight director Robb Hunter—is directing the AU theatre team’s upcoming play Dracula, set to premiere on February 16. And AU is presenting Dracula with a modern-day twist, inventively forcing audiences to confront gender stereotypes.

The Dracula character will be played by a female actor, as all of the gender roles in the production are reversed. The hero-protagonist, Abraham Van Helsing, is now played by a woman, and two heroines in the original story, Mina and Lucy, will be played by men. Interestingly enough, the gender pronouns will remain the same. So even as a woman plays Dracula, the iconic count is still referred to as "he."

Gender Bending

If this sounds a little confusing, then it’s probably accomplishing its goal. Menninger wants the play to jostle audiences out of their comfort zones and provoke discussion.

Dracula is a play about sexual power. It’s about abuse, really,” says Menninger. “I felt like if you’re going to look at it, why not look at it through a different lens?”

During rehearsals, he’s noticed some unanticipated, powerful moments that might also surprise the audience. Those role changes, he says, could make people question the ways in which they view male and female gender differently. In one scene, Van Helsing learns that Lucy and Mina shared a bed together since they were young girls.

“When a woman says that, we don’t think twice of it. But when you see a man say that, we just think, ‘Now we’ve got something homoerotic here,’” he says.

The World is a Stage

AU junior Elizabeth Morton is the play’s dramaturge, a person who typically researches the theories and history surrounding the original text. Through that research, the dramaturge helps convey the director’s vision to the actors and production team. She talked about gender bending in theatre with the Dracula cast.

“One of the actors had a really great point about the kind of disposable nature of female actors in the theatre world, because there’s so few really meaty parts for women,” says Morton, a double major in theatre arts and public relations and strategic communication. “When you’re a woman working in theatre, you can feel really unneeded, or that you’re just there for that one little damsel-in-distress part.”

Historically, Morton says, women were often excluded from the entire process. Female Shakespearean characters were played by men. In Ancient Roman times, the only women on stage were usually prostitutes and not respected as artists.

She conducted research on professor Judith Butler’s gender performance theory, rooted in the idea that gender is not inherent to biology.

“It’s about how society trains women to act a certain way. How it’s a rehearsed performance to be a woman, and a rehearsed performance to be a man,” Morton explains.

Since this is pertinent to stage acting, she incorporated it into her work with the Dracula actors.

“That was a really good discussion to help all of the actors understand that they’re not really playing women. They’re playing someone socialized as a woman, or playing someone practiced and rehearsed to be a woman,” Morton says.

She also studied 19th century England, the setting of Stoker’s Dracula novel. The popularity of early vampire stories coincided with British colonial concerns about “the other,” she says, whether it be fears of the unknown, foreigners, or sins of flesh. Morton notes that Stoker worked in a theatre that specialized in “invasion literature stories” that glorified the British Empire.

“There have been interpretations of Dracula where he’s considered a symbol of homosexuality, or a symbol of sexual deviancy,” she says. “Dracula really represents the ‘other’ in that context, and it was really comforting to people that they could have those stories where this powerful other is defeated.”

Wolf, Monster, and Human

Still, AU’s production is unequivocal about Dracula’s ghastly crimes. For this play, Menninger chose William McNulty’s Dracula adaptation, partly because he depicts the title character in a harsh light. Menninger contemplated the evolution of Dracula and other vampires in popular culture.

“It’s been sort of camped up, and it’s been watered down. To some extent, when you make something campy, you make it comical. And I don’t know if that was the original intent,” he says. “We forget that what Dracula is actually doing is reprehensible, so we haven’t romanticized it here.”

AU’s Dracula play has plenty of physical challenges, too. With moveable Gothic gates and puppeteers, some of the special effects are in plain view for the audience, and they’ll deploy music, sound, and lighting to amplify the suspense.

Dracula can become a wolf, a monster, and a human. That last form—the human Dracula—could push the audience to reflect on the gender politics of today.

“What’s fun about this is I don’t know that I’m making a statement. I haven’t come to a conclusion,” says Menninger. “I am just presenting something and seeing what kinds of questions it raises.”