The Rep's David Grapes gives aging 'Dracula' fresh blood.

By Kevin Nance
Staff Writer, The Tennessean

In three decades of directing plays, David Grapes, artistic director of Tennessee Repertory Theatre, has run across a Dracula or two.

There are at least a dozen stage adaptations of Bram Stoker's 1897 vampire novel (to say nothing of all the film versions), and Grapes has directed several of them, but none was entirely satisfying.

This year, though, he hit on an ingenious new spin on Dracula. His scenic designer, Gary Hoff, had been saying he wanted to design an art deco set and wondered whether Stoker's gothic tale of a charming fiend could somehow be adapted to fit on such a set. Grapes thought it could, but he wasn't sure how.

''Somewhere in the middle of the night,'' he recalls, ''I got this idea that the main character of the play should be Van Helsing, and that he needs to be a film-noir, Sam Spade kind of character who talks directly to us, and that Lucy needs to have a scene where she goes to him and gets him on the case.''

Hoff loved the concept, and especially the idea of setting the story in Hollywood. ''I thought, 'What a great place for Dracula to pick to come to — a place where he could be suave, he could be debonair and he could be as eccentric as he wanted to be, and no one's going to notice. And look at all the people for him to feed off of.' ''

Grapes commissioned a script from Robert Neblett, a dramaturge who had worked on last season's Rep production of The Taming of the Shrew and who was a fan of the Dracula legend.

''The film noir genre, which drew on the detective pulp fiction of the 1940s, coincided with the development of horror fiction, which would turn into Weird Tales and Tales of the Crypt in the '50s,'' Neblett says. ''In a way, writing Dracula has been like putting those two worlds against each other to see which one would win out.''

What won out, as the script was refined during the past several months, was film noir.

Set in Los Angeles in the '40s, Dracula: The Case of the Silver Scream turns Stoker's parapsychologist, Dr. Van Helsing, into Abe Van Helsing, private eye.

This Van Helsing (Henry Haggard channeling Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum with a touch of Columbo-era Peter Falk) is a cynical, trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing detective with a dingy office outfitted with venetian blinds, a ceiling fan, a banged-up desk and a half-empty bottle of scotch.

Approached by a tall, leggy and fatally gorgeous movie actress named Lucy — ''One look at this dame,'' Van Helsing tells the audience, ''and I knew she was trouble'' — he reluctantly agrees to investigate the mysterious disappearances of members of the cast of her latest movie, which is being filmed in an opulent (and, wouldn't you know, deco) sanitarium.

That's where he gets his first look at a mysterious European nobleman who has purchased the rambling mansion next door. It seems that Count Dracula (Steven Hauck) is being courted as an investor for the over-budget movie project — a happy prospect since, as he puts it, ''I've developed a taste for the American cinema and its leading ladies.'' Van Helsing instinctively knows that this guy's not on the level.

''Suddenly he was there, where only shadow had been before,'' the detective informs us. ''As his unblinking eyes scanned the room, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and my blood ran cold. Though I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, his arrival gave me the feeling we were being sized up, the way a spider might regard a fly caught in its web. And for one split-second, the air was filled with the rank stench of fresh blood.''

The narrating detective, the femme fatale, the shadowy villain, the literal and figurative play of light and dark — the Rep's Dracula has all the hallmarks of film noir.

Almost all. The play, unlike most of the films it's based on, isn't entirely in black and white, the format that helped define the visual style of the classic noirs.

''We had a very long, serious conversation about whether to make the whole thing completely black and white,'' Grapes says. ''But we were afraid that without the financial resources to completely do it that way, we'd never completely get there.''

Besides, Hoff discovered, the idea of going totally black-and-white proved less practical than it first appeared.

''You go, 'Black and white? That sounds fine,' '' he says. ''But then you start going, 'I can't use greenery. I can't use any plants. The actors can't drink scotch that's scotch-colored.' Every time you turned a corner, it had to be black or white or gray, and it just wasn't workable.''

In the end, Grapes and Hoff decided to go with a limited palette that, with Phillip Franck's atmospheric lighting casting shadows everywhere, ought to show up just fine. ''We're not doing film noir,'' Haggard says, ''we're doing stage noir.'' ©˜

From a shadowy past

After the optimistic, escapist movie musicals of the 1930s, American cinema turned in the following decade — and on into the mid '50s — to a dark, stylish and altogether unsettling new genre known as film noir.

Influenced by German expressionism, film noir offered sumptuous black-and-white cinematography in which the play of light and shadow suggested a world of corruption, stealth, hidden motives and the dark side of human nature.

Some of the earliest and best film noirs were detective stories based on the hardboiled crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. They gave the world the unforgettable gumshoes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, respectively, both of whom were immortalized on celluloid by Humphrey Bogart (in John Huston's 1941 The Maltese Falcon and Howard Hawks' 1946 The Big Sleep, respectively).

Other classic early noirs are Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), featuring Fred MacMurray and, as the archetypal femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck; Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman; Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner; and Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1948), with Welles and his then-wife, Rita Hayworth, caught in the ultimate hall of mirrors.

Later came Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), with Gloria Swanson and, narrating from beyond the grave, William Holden; and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953), with a square-jawed Glenn Ford facing off against a nasty Lee Marvin, who tosses a carafe of hot coffee in Gloria Grahame's face; later she returns the favor.

Summing up the genre — and maybe finishing it off — is Touch of Evil (1958), which some place alongside Citizen Kane in the Welles canon. Gorgeously shot (and now available in a stunningly re-mastered DVD), it features fascinating performances by Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and, in arguably his own greatest acting role as corrupt and corpulent lawman Hank Quinlan, Welles himself.

By the early 1960s, film noir's heyday was over. But its influence can be felt in neo-noirs such as Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) and the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), and even in sci-fi variations such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).

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