Defiant Theatre

at Charybdis

By Justin Hayford

If I weren’t a gay man living in the age of AIDS, I might have gotten sucked into the century-old vampire mystique exemplified by Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror story, Dracula. The lure is obvious: libidos run wild, unleashing “darker” instincts and lustful evil. In the figure of the Transylvanian count (inspired by a nightmare brought on by “a too generous helping of dressed crab at supper one night”) Stoker forever linked blood, sexual deviance, and death. And a century’s worth of books, plays, and films–everything from Son of Dracula to Mama Dracula–has left Stoker’s vision largely untouched.

So who is this Dracula? In Stoker’s novel he’s well mannered, impeccably groomed, and slightly effeminate, spending much of the first chapter flitting about the castle whipping up fancy meals and tidying like mad. When it comes to expressing himself sexually, he’s indiscriminate and predatory. Holed up in an exotic locale away from “civilization,” he’s a disturbing mystery–but loosed upon “the world” (namely middle-class London), he’s a one-man plague.

He is, in short, perhaps the greatest literary faggot of the century–that is, if you discount “Patient Zero,” Randy Shilts’s phantasmagoric rendering of an actual person in his 1987 And the Band Played On. The direct descendant of Dracula as Shilts imagines him, Patient Zero has an extraterrestrial name–Gaetan Dugas–and spends his days searching through his “fabric-covered address book” for prey when not ensconced in a San Francisco bathhouse, a place more horrifying in Shilts’s description than Dracula’s castle at midnight on Halloween. Even Stoker couldn’t have topped Shilts’s vision of Dugas flipping on the lights after fucking his victim, displaying his lesions, and cackling, “I’ve got gay cancer. I’m going to die and so are you.”

The story of Dugas-as-Dracula, the man who “brought AIDS to North America,” was largely responsible for the book’s bestsellerdom; reviewers didn’t bother with it until St. Martin’s press hyped the Patient Zero angle. Dugas and Dracula–icons of self-absorbed sexual irresponsibility–embody pure carnality, personifying the fear that “kinky” sex in all its swampy excess can create carnage. A story that never goes far out of favor, the Dracula myth turned gay America into a monstrous pit in need of fumigation.

It seems off-Broadway playwright Mac Wellman hates Stoker’s novel and its troubling legacy as much as I do. His riotous and unruly Dracula, given an outrageous production by Defiant Theatre, tears the story to shreds, scrambling episodes, recasting characters, jettisoning subplots. Wellman’s approach is simple: he turns the novel inside out to expose its sexphobic, misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic undercurrents, thwarting Stoker’s efforts to conceal them beneath the tale’s ghoulish facade. In the manner of the great Charles Ludlam, Wellman turns up the sexy, campy heat so high that he reduces all conservative moralism to ash.

You can just imagine the neocon sex police going into anaphylactic shock over this production. Three ubervulgar “vampyrettes” act as a kind of chorus, stripping, gyrating, and waxing rhapsodic and explicit over their rapacious vulvas. Dr. John Seward, head of the local lunatic asylum and pillar of heroic rationality in Stoker’s novel, becomes a self-aggrandizing drug addict fond of raping unconscious patients. Mina and Lucy, Stoker’s paragons of chaste Victorian womanhood, become semilesbian nymphomaniacs entranced by anything depraved (Lucy gets so worked up imagining the “feats of copulation among the idiot population” in Seward’s asylum that she humps his leg to orgasm). And Professor Van Helsing, Dutch vampirologist and tireless antisatanist, becomes a bug-eyed dirty old man ripped from a Mel Brooks movie.

Given such excessive material, director Richard Ragsdale wisely reins in his cast; each character struggles to suppress his or her maniacal sex-crazed impulses. The result is volcanic, iconoclastic comedy–though it takes the cast about 20 minutes to get into the swing of things. They stumble through opening sections seemingly designed to confuse, spilling sloppily into both melodrama and lampoon as they try to make sense of Wellman’s fragmented narrative. But once the playwright gets his storytelling ducks in a row and the cast settles into a consistent style, Defiant gives the script’s malevolent camp a pointed recklessness.

Most interesting, Wellman and Ragsdale make Dracula into something of a cipher, concealed beneath mounds of excess hair and flesh, a vision of personality-free carnality. He appears only occasionally, sometimes as a French maid or vaudeville hoofer, and then it’s to stoke everyone else’s fires. For in the inverted world of this play, Dracula is no more vampiric than anyone else, and he’s less hypocritical. The upstanding citizens all reek of insatiable blood lust despite their expressions of horror at the count’s imagined transgressions. His grand speech near the end of the play, in which he describes himself as “pure otherness,” is the height of irony. This Dracula offers a sly commentary on our habit of projecting our “baser” instincts onto those we imagine to be sexual deviants. Look, for example, at how anal sex has become the exemplar of diseased homosexuality, as though a few millennia’s worth of heterosexuals never gave a thought to their anuses when they got horny.

To criticize this Dracula for being “unscary,” as one local critic has, is like criticizing Bela Lugosi for his comic timing. Wellman and Defiant have no interest in B-grade horror: they want to provoke and scandalize in the name of sexual radicalism. And since the gay-rights movement has all but disowned its sexual radicals in pursuit of assimilationist “normalcy,” this Dracula is a necessary slap in the face. We need reminders of how much of our nature is lost when we drain eroticism of its chaotic, chthonic power. As Wellman’s Dracula says, blood and passion are “too precious in these days of dishonorable peace.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dracula theater still by Geoffrey Fingerhut.