Letters, Reviews & Speeches

DRACULA By Richard Ouzounian writer/director and Merrick Norman composer-

It's a bad idea for those of us who work in the theatre to publicly review our peers if we intend to work or socialize with them someday. Most theatre artists, with their thin skins and long memories never forget a bad review. It's a recipe for professional and social ostracism and disaster.

The only thing worse than an artist pretending to be a critic is a critic pretending to be an artist. George Bernard Shaw did it some time ago and the theatre has never recovered. Thanks to GBS the theatre was a sexless wasteland for decades, the dusty, wordy domain of critics, academic and students. And Shaw was a pretty good playwright. The same cannot be said for Richard Ouzounian, author and director of DRACULA, currently running at the Stratford Festival.

I waited for the reviews for this show with some anticipation. Richard Ouzounian is not only the Creative Head of Arts Programming at TVO, he is also the host of CBC Radio 2's "Say It With Music" and the theatre critic for CBC Radio 1. The Globe and Mail's drama reviewer has guested on TVO several times. Ouzounian attends openings with the Toronto Star's reviewer. How would these people react to the work of one of their own kind?

The reviews I read were diplomatically negative. The book and lyrics were pronounced unsuccessful. The music got mixed reactions. The players and designers got a positive response. The direction was highly praised. The Toronto Star inexplicably gave it three stars. I got the sense the reviewers were searching desperately for positive things to say. When I was asked to go to Stratford and check things out for the Post, Dracula was high on my list of must sees. I love the source material and was curious to see if the critical reaction to the show was accurate.

I found only two points I was in agreement with the reviewers on. The performers in DRACULA are indeed excellent. They bring a level of talent and conviction to this material it barely warrants. The same can be said for the production's various designers. On every other level though the reviewers were very, very generous.

Ouzounian's bio lists him as having written, directed or acted in over 200 professional productions. After twenty years in the Canadian theatre I couldn't name one of these shows. If DRACULA is any indication of this other work, I now understand why.

DRACULA's dialogue sounds like it was written by a computer program designed to teach sixth graders nineteen-century speech patterns. The characters are not only shallow they're also stupid. When Dracula threatens the women in the show the men react by running off to find him, leaving the females alone and unprotected. Characters who have been under Dracula's thrall are suddenly able to throw off his influence when it's convenient to the so-called plot. When it's not convenient they're back under his control again. Stoker was never this sloppy. No one really does anything but talk or sing, and never about anything interesting. There isn't a lick of genuine humor in the entire piece. It reminded me of an ersatz LES MISERABLES without any of the good parts.

The much praised direction is nonexistent, confirming one of my long held and much feared suspicions; theatre reviewers have no idea what a director actually does. In DRACULA the characters stand centre stage in a spotlight and sing. Sometimes they move but only very slowly. The pacing of the show is so torpid and the staging so static that there were moments I literally had to bite my tongue to keep myself from screaming, "Hey they're supposed to be vampires- not zombies!"

The sense of forbidden sexuality that seethes beneath the surface of Bram Stoker's novel is laughable in Ouzounian's version. The three vampiresses who alternately tempt and threaten the hero while he's visiting Dracula's castle are full of potential for strong theatrical imagery. In Ouzounian's hands they scurry across the stage like aggressive charwomen and disappear before they've even registered. In the end the director resorts to that hoariest of directorial cliches, the big fire effect, to rouse the geriatric audience out of their stupor for the requisite reprise of the requisite love ballad. The audience dutifully leapt to their walkers to thank the performers for their excellent work. Audiences are always more generous to performers working with weak material. How else would you explain the fact that the performance of DRACULA I attended got a standing ovation when the far superior WEST SIDE STORY I saw did not? It certainly wasn't because DRACULA is a better musical.

Of course there's no law against creating bad theatre. We all do it from time to time. And never on purpose. What disturbs me about Ouzounian's DRACULA is that it got produced at all. Despite the fact that the show apparently has a history of workshops and an earlier production I had the feeling no one had actually read the play prior to the beginning of rehearsals. The problems in the script are so obvious that an even half-competent dramaturge would have pointed them out. And an even half-competent producer would have demanded rewrites. And an even half-competent playwright would have wanted to do them.

Thankfully this was the only production I saw at the Festival that disappointed and disturbed me. WEST SIDE STORY was brilliant in execution and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM was an amusing diversion.

I left Dracula with a number of questions on my mind. How did a play this poorly developed make it to the very expensive Stratford Stage? Why wasn't someone with any kind of track record for commercial success or critical acclaim hired to write the book? Do the added attributes of a television station and a high profile radio spot, with their potential to offer cross promotion, artist and festival profiles, possible future television sales and those all important review quotes that have replaced the imagination as the best way to sell plays, increase a Canadian artists likelihood of being produced here? I certainly hope not. The Festival has far too much prestige and has become far too positive a place for such things to be going on.