Don’t feel bad if you have not read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Neither had Gordon Greenberg, who co-wrote and directs the new comic version of the classic vampire tale in a world premiere at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, opening tonight.
“And guess what? I still haven’t,” he concedes shamelessly. “Wikipedia is great,” Greenberg adds, referring to the online compendium from which he culled the basic facts of the story he adapted with his writing partner, Steve Rosen. “My knowledge of ‘Dracula’ was somewhat limited. I saw it when I was a kid, on Broadway with Frank Langella.”
Greenberg and Rosen had earlier penned a five-character spoof of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a big hit at Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse. But when they pitched the idea to Maltz Jupiter Theatre chief executive Andrew Kato, he responded that he loved the economical comic format – similar to The 39 Steps, which the north county company produced several years ago – but wondered if it could be applied to Dracula.
Greenberg quickly embraced the notion. “I thought there would be room for it, because there’s this grand, serious one that most people traditionally do. But there hasn’t been a ‘Dracula’ a la Mel Brooks or ‘Spamalot,’” he says. “I thought it was a grand idea, because the best way to achieve comedy is to take yourself very seriously. Something like ‘Dracula’ that is dead serious, is very easy to skewer.”
Greenberg does not see his ignorance of the original source material as a problem, so long as he included the key elements of the story that the audience is likely to recall. “They might only know two things about Dracula – that he’s a vampire and he comes from Transylvania. And that’s enough,” he says. “The rest of it is invented and is kind of hilarious on any level.
“There are beloved or well-regarded or treasured moments, aspects of Dracula that we have to hit. You want to reference them in some way, to hit those moments and craft our own new plot,” he explains. “Because the original plot, the Bram Stoker, is sort of episodic and doesn’t really tie together as one complete evening. But when you go to the theater, you want to see a beginning, middle and end. So we made one.”
Featured as Dracula at the Maltz will be Jared Zirilli, who recently appeared on Broadway in the Donna Summer musical, Summer. Asked what he was after in casting the title role, Greenberg says, “We were looking for someone who was smart and funny and understood the lexicon of this world. And could be a seductive matinee idol at the same time.”
Little previous awareness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was required and that is what Zirilli had. “The Dracula stuff that I saw growing up was on Nickelodeon’s ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark,’ the vampire episode. So I didn’t have an extensive knowledge,” he notes. “Even without having seen all the movies beforehand or reading the book, you know what Dracula is. I watched the Mel Brooks Dracula movie (‘Dracula: Dead and Loving It’) once we started this, but saw that we were doing something very different so there was nothing to really absorb from that.”
Zirilli plays Dracula throughout the show, while the other four actors take on some 25 different roles. “I think watching the virtuosity of these actors is a big part of the joy of watching this show,” says Greenberg.
Asked to describe his Dracula, Zirilli says, “He doesn’t take himself too seriously except for when he does, when he’s trying to get the girl. He’s a more self-reflective Dracula, because he falls in love, in what he thinks is a real kind of love past his narcissism. But he’s also aggressive, so don’t cross him. For a comedy, he’s really complex.”
Greenberg and Rosen’s play is primarily a comedy, but it also has its serious side. “I think by the end there’s a sense that the audience has been on a journey,” says Greenberg. “I don’t know that you’ll be weeping, but I think you’ll feel satisfied.”
When it proves successful here, Greenberg hopes to talk other stage companies into doing this Dracula. “The great thing about it is it’s highly producible. As opposed to television or moviegoing, this experience is one that you can only have in a theater, because it invites and unlocks your imagination. Because this version of ‘Dracula’ is so compact, that makes it very doable for most theaters.
“It’s a joyride for 90 minutes that will make your life happier. I think it’s also a love letter to theater in general,” says Greenberg. “You’re watching great actors whip up a story and they’re doing it all right in front of your face. It’s pretty thrilling, especially with this cast of top-notch actors.
“We’ve got to find some level of honesty under all this, no matter how ridiculous it is. But make no mistake about it, it’s a farce.”
DRACULA: A COMEDY OF TERRORS, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Today through Sunday, Nov. 10. $62-$90. 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.