Review: Dracula Meets His Transcribing, Collating Match in "Mina," a Faithful, Female-Forward Retelling of Bram Stoker's Novel


Adapted by Richard Width from Bram Stoker's Dracula

Directed by Karen Eterovich

Presented by First Flight Theatre Company at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

October 23-November 2, 2023

Reilly Hacker. Photo courtesy of Emily Owens PR
A solitary woman enters and unpacks some vampire-hunting paraphernalia - a crucifix, a stake, and so on - laying the items on one of two small tables, the other bearing a number of documents - telegrams, journals, letters. That woman is Wilhelmina Murray Harker (Reilly Hacker), who will shortly take the lectern to deliver an account of her and her companions' encounter with and (spoiler) ultimate victory over the undead Count Dracula. Bram Stoker's 1897 tale of the repulsion of this foreign, vampiric threat to England has been adapted over and over across more than a century and numerous forms of media, but First Flight Theatre Company's Mina, adapted from Stoker's novel by Richard Width and performed entirely by Hacker, retains more fidelity to the original text than almost any stage or screen adaptation that we are aware of - and is not one whit less entertaining or enthralling for it. Mina's hour-long tale of terror is part of the FRIGID New York's 2023 Days of the Dead Festival, which runs from October 20th to November 2nd and features a range of Dia de Muertos and Halloween-appropriate shows, musical performances, and theater works at UNDER St. Marks and the Kraine Theater.

Mina frames its retelling as a presentation delivered in a London lecture hall in 1900, meant to galvanize the English to prepare themselves against the possible, or in Mina's view, probable, recurrence of the nosferatu threat. In addition to demonstrating that the epistolary novel can be adapted perfectly well without the fundamental restructurings often applied to it, Mina also reminds us of its titular character's centrality to what scholar Gregory A. Waller has termed the "moral community" that comes together to defeat the Count - not only the more-often-foregrounded Abraham Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker but also Dr. John Seward and Quincey Morris. Waller emphasizes that Mina's role is "essential," and that includes her "methodically deductive analysis of the collated narrative," that is, the collection of written, recorded, and transcribed texts that make up the novel (The Living and the Undead, 2010 [1986], pg. 38). Width's canny condensation of Stoker's novel, which uses a good deal of its language, makes choices that orient the audience with Mina's point of view, and it provides a very accurate representation of Mina's story specifically, where the novel eventually becomes dominated by the men who fight the fight and tell the story, despite all of the narratives being presented as consisting of manuscript notes authored by a number of characters and organized by Mina. Additions are few, such as a reference to Vlad the Impaler, and, interestingly, within the streamlined form of the adaptation, the heroes' sympathy for the misery of undead existences calls attention to itself.

Helping to put Mina on the same footing as the male characters, the upper half of her Victorian-style dress, of which a red that might call to mind blood is the dominant color, boasts a slightly military feel to its upper half (the costume also allows for both a clever conversion to something more like a night dress and a reassumption of its outer layer, albeit, perhaps symbolically, not rebuttoned, when Mina and the group pursue the fleeing Dracula back to his castle). Sound effects and music are used sparingly and to good effect to enhance the atmosphere at key points such as the episode of the Demeter and the climactic confrontation with Dracula, but of course the most important element is Hacker herself. Mina often reads from her assembled documents, and as she does, Hacker transforms into those other characters, adeptly juggling accents and personae, from a youthfully congenial Lucy Westenra, Mina's close friend and a victim of Dracula, to madhouse resident Renfield, with his plans of absorbing ever greater life forces. Only the voices of the vampires themselves are not Hacker's, a choice that maintains their emphatic Otherness. Hacker is a captivating presence, lashing us to the wheel of her performance, as it were, giving power to such moments such as Dracula's forcing Mina to drink his blood, a scene which brings the subtext of sexual assault memorably and uncomfortably close to the surface. Much like Mina herself, who falls somewhere between the traditional and progressive versions of Victorian womanhood, Mina feels simultaneously familiar and fresh.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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