Lunatic,Theatre N16

Riot Act’s production of Lunatic, a new gothic play by Whit Hertford and Robert J. Gibbs, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is an intriguing yet slightly overwrought look at a modern relationship between Dr. Seward and his psychiatric patient, Renfield, both based on Stoker’s characters of the same names. Renfield begins to hear a “Slavic voice” in his head, who compels him to eat and drink the blood of living things. His disturbing ravings begin to have a strong psychological effect on Dr. Seward, forcing him to question his definition of sanity, and wonder whether this voice could be more than just the invention of a troubled mind.

The exploration of the relationship and power dynamic between the doctor and the patient makes up the most coherent and engaging parts of the play. The evening begins to go off the rails as it incorporates more literal paranormal elements. Renfield’s psychotic internal struggles with Dracula go on for too long, and the use of a cartoonish Transylvanian accent makes it all very difficult to take seriously. In general the play would have been more effective if it had been about 20 minutes shorter (it ran about 1 hour and 35 minutes, which is, in fact, 15 minutes longer than the front-of-house staff told me it would be). After a while the play becomes tiresome and one-note; the mysterious haunting quality we feel at the beginning fades away, and the triteness in the writing starts to become more evident. The introduction of a new character late in the play is not as compelling as it could have been, and seemed to contribute to the unnecessary length. I won’t spoil the play’s final moment, but it seemed to me, at the end of the evening, to be somewhat laughable in its shock-seeking gratuitousness.

The acting and the direction were mostly very strong, given the circumstances. Whit Hertford’s direction utilizes the beautiful, old space to its advantage, and Ben Jacobs’ use of lighting and sparse scenic design served the story well. The inclusion of grotesque video footage projected onto a screen, however, seemed to be aiming for an effect that didn’t quite land.

The two main actors are both well cast; Justin Stahley effectively captures Dr. Seward’s transformation from level-headed and slightly awkward, to broken, unstable and distraught. Chris Spyrides’ portrayal of Renfield is fascinating and disturbing, though it loses its striking effect over the course of the play, perhaps relying a bit too much on histrionics.

All in all, the piece plays with some compelling ideas, and boldly takes Bram Stoker’s characters into a modern context. Some may find it to be a good dose of creepiness to get them in the Halloween spirit. However, it ranges from haunting and intriguing, to cliché and wearisome to watch. It was a telling moment when, at the very end of the play, the audience were so bewildered that an usher had to begin the applause.
By Joseph Weinberg

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