Dr. Van Helsing and Mina Harker Lead the War Against the Undead in “Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really”

Portland Center Stage has brought Kate Hamill’s play to poetically gruesome life with gothic grandeur and a fiendishly charismatic cast.

Dracula (Allison Barr)

“There are good men in this world.”

Just before the blood-drenched climax of Kate Hamill’s Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, those words sprout from the mouth of Dr. George Seward (Darius Pierce), a cringingly sincere chap who runs a psychiatric hospital.

He is clearly a semi-intelligent man, but I have to ask, “Dude, really?” Hamill’s Dracula is defined by its conviction that most men are parasitic monsters at worst and paternalistic monsters at best. Yet Seward cannot grasp that the play’s message is less #NotAllMen than #YesAllMenToVaryingDegreesOfComplicity.

Whether that strikes you as pessimistic or just plain honest, there’s no denying that Portland Center Stage has brought Hamill’s Dracula to poetically gruesome life. With gothic grandeur and a fiendishly charismatic cast, the production lures you into its menacing embrace, holding you tight until its sinister final scene.

Although the protagonist of this pleasurably lurid affair is Mina Harker (Ashley Song), we first meet her husband, Jonathan (La’ Tevin Alexander). A fussy fellow in a gray tailcoat and gold spectacles, Jonathan kicks off the story by pondering whether it’s politically correct to refer to someone as a “peasant,” ensuring that we won’t be too devastated when he falls into the clutches of Count Dracula (Setareki Wainiqolo).

Wearing a globe-size grin and a maroon smoking jacket, Wainiqolo makes for a superbly stylish vampire. When a brainwashed Jonathan describes the Count as a “handsome” and “gracious” host, it’s hard to disagree; Dracula revels in the good manners that conceal his vampiric hunger for human blood.

Appetite aside, this Dracula is a picky eater. “You are not quite my taste,” he tells Mina, a line that queasily recalls Donald Trump’s rebuke of writer E. Jean Carroll (“She’s not my type.”) before he was found guilty of sexually assaulting her.

Who is Dracula’s taste? He gets off on toying with Jonathan—who, in the Count’s thrall, adopts a terrifyingly vacant smile—but reserves the brunt of his bloodlust for Lucy Westenra (Sammy Rat Rios) and Dr. Van Helsing (Cycerli Ash), who arrives fully armed with daggers, silver crosses and enough garlic to stink up a skyscraper.

In the battle against the undead, Dr. Van Helsing is the wise and wary mentor and Mina is her earnest disciple. Visually, they’re a fascinating pair, with Van Helsing’s black leather jacket contrasting nicely with the pregnant Mina’s beige shawl. Jenny Ampersand’s costumes are as expressive as they are eye catching, reminding us that all women have a place in the war on patriarchal tyranny.

The play also argues that there is more than one way to be a patriarchal tyrant. Bullies like Dracula are an obvious threat, but Hamill reveals how shattered male stooges can be either dangerous or dangerously useless. (After his encounter with the Count, Jonathan is reduced to a seizure-stricken mouthpiece for his new master, repeatedly shouting, “He is coming!”)

In Hamill’s study of the many shades of femininity and masculinity, Seward is by far the least compelling character. A hopeless mansplainer who unironically announces, “I hate a lecture,” he is the butt of countless flimsy jokes and the center of an unconvincing journey toward redemption, joining forces with Mina and Van Helsing in a sequence that feels hollow and forced.

It’s hard not to wonder how the mesmerizingly unpredictable Pierce might have embodied a more layered version of Seward. But, like all the actors, he meshes beautifully with the play’s visual splendor, which was crafted by a platoon of peerless theater artisans, including director Marissa Wolf, lighting designer Carl Faber, and scenic designer Diggle.

It’s a privilege to see Dracula illuminated behind a translucent dark screen, like a far-off spectral presence in a nightmare, or a silhouetted Van Helsing framed against a vast crimson backdrop that promises giddy war (a promise kept with aplomb). Few Portland theater companies merge the epic and the arty like Portland Center Stage, whose productions often earn the right to be called blockbusters.

The night I saw Dracula, an electrical issue triggered the fire alarm, temporarily delaying the production. But dark wonderment swiftly eclipsed unease as the show started with minimal fuss, welcoming us into its shadowy world. It turns out that vampires, vampire hunters and theater artists all live by the same creed: The show must go on.

SEE IT: Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really plays at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, 2 pm Saturday-Sunday and select Thursdays, through Dec. 24. Tickets start at $25.

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