"Five minutes to curtain, ladies and gentleman," says the loudspeaker. Backstage at the Eisenhower Theater, the already frenzied action accelarates in darkness and silence.
Shadowy figures flit softly past, stagehands on mysterious errands. A young man in a jumpsuit, wearing a shoulder harness, is hoisted up to the flies, high above the stage. Flashlights flicker fitfully and disappear.
In a few minutes, dogs will begin to howl - the signal for the curtain to rise on "Dracula."
A tall, powerful man looms in the dim light, his shocking paleness accented by his long, black cape. He speaks, in a curiously gentle voice, of hunger, of blood, of a strange, unquestioning bond that must be called love.
A few minutes ago, in a well-lit dressing room, he was Raul Julia, a young actor originally from Puerto Rico. Now, with the aid of makeup artist Frank Melon, he is Count Dracula, a 500-year-old visitor from Transylvania. Dracula will be onstage 18 or 20 minutes in the two-hour show. Between exists and entrances, Julia agreed to give an interview.
Offstage, the voice is that of Julia - thoughtful, soft-spoken. In a moment, when he steps out into the lights and confronts a sold-out house, the voice will take on a deeper resonance, a compelling power.
"In the past 500 years, Professor, those who have crossed my will have died - some not pleasantly."
Now, he is warming up; from time to time, backstage, he interrupts his conversation with a resounding "Aaah" - getting the Dracula-voice in tune.
Melon offers him a bottle of beer and he refuses politely: "I can't take it now; I don't want to be a drunk vampire."
He is not the only Dracula on the premises. His understudy, Canadian actor Jean LeClere, who is now taking the role occasionally in New York, was hovering around backstage earlier: "Is Raul here yet? Can I go and have my dinner?"
The two men talk quietly in a corner for a few minutes before LeClerc is freed for the evening - the friendly shop talk of specialists.
Then the dog howls again, a cue for Dracula's entrance and Julia vanishes into the backstage darkness. He will have to enter from the other side of th stage; an assistant with a flashlight helps him pick his way through the complicated equipment behind the scenery.
His first scene in relatively low-key: Dracula is still the nice foreign neighbor visiting an English country-house. He exits quietly, stage left, carrying a book which he hands to an attendant. He will need it again at the end of the act and then he will be in a hurry, the script calls for him to be in two places at once.
Back in the dressing room. Dracula fades away except for an occasional "Aaaah" ("There are many breaks, and you have in stay revved up for it while you're offstage." Julia explains). and Julia talks about the curious way he earns his living. He has played in "Hamlet" and in musical remedy: he has been Mack the Knife and a movie race-car driver: he has done a season on "Sesame Street," and now, at the Kennedy Center, he is a larger-than-life embodiment of strange hungers, obscure lusts.
The dog howls again and he hurries off - no more Mr. Nice Guy; this time, he has to come up suddenly, mysteriously, behind the sofa where the heroine is resting and scare the wits out of everyone.He crouches, waiting in an eerie dim red light. The loudspeaker is softly busy: "Music cue 46B; prepare for the end of Act I." A stagehand wrestles with a recalcitrant piece of equipment and there is a loud hang that doesn't belong in the show. "Jesus Christ," mutters the stagehand, and the vampire winces - perhaps at the noise perhaps at the powerful name.
Then he launches into furious activity - even running, which is risky backstage - so that he can stroll in calmly from stage left, carrying the book as the curtain falls.
Between acts, he talks about his unusual role and others he has played: "Technically, there's not much difference. I still work on the character in the same way. Except that this character is less human - or he is human plus: there are characters like that in Shakespeare, too. He is not a complicated character, although he could be with another script. There is no internal struggle. Dracula is a character totally at peace with himself."
There is a strang power in this single-minded figure; he dominates completely the drama that bears his name though he is offstage far more than he is on. For the actor, it is terribly demanding - brief, intense periods under the lights followed by long pauses waiting for the next cue. "Every moment on stage is precious." says Julia."Every moment you have to be completely involved."
During the long waits in the star dressing room (which is conveniently located just offstage), some of the other actors drop in to visit between exits and entrances. A loudspeaker in the dressing room's ceiling lets them keep track of what is happening on-stage. During a visit by leading lady Margaret Whitton, eerie music comes pouring out of the speaker, then the insane voice of Renfield (actor John Long) shouting "Master, master!"
"That's the bat; it's my cue," says Whitton and dashes out to the wings suddenly transformed into a proper British young lady of good family sometime in the 1920s. Julia stays behind, discussing his curious relationship with the despicable Dracula: "No matter how bad he is. I love him; I have to love him. It's like a mother's love. It works better for me as an actor if I don't make any moral judgment on the character."
With this role, Julia's private interests interlock curiosly with the mood of the play in which he embodies pure (or rather impure) hunger. Between appearances onstage, he usually sits in his dressing room studying literature for The Hunger Project, an international drive that began last year and hopes to wipe out hunger throughout the world in the next 19 years.
His intense dedication is reflected in the space devoted to the cause in his biography in the theater program; nearly two of the five inches about Julia are actually about The Hunger Project. He also talks about it fervently, fixing a visitor with hypnotic Dracula-eyes as he delivers the message: "The only thing that is needed now to end starvation is for people to take the responsibility to do it."
Onstage, the hunger is for blood and it occupies him completely: "Many times, I am totally identified with the character. Those are the times when it is best. Not much else goes through my mind while I am acting."
But the identification stops when the cape comes off - a massive batlike cape that he manipulates with the precision of a torcador. To prepare for his evening of blood-lust, he has a completely bloodless meal:
"A boiled egg, vitamins, protein mixed with milk and a banana - at least two hours before the show. That's all I had today; maybe I will have something light when I get home. It takes me a long time to get unwound; I will not fall asleep until 2 or 3 in the morning and until then I will read more about The Hunger Project."
Back onstage, Dracula is involved in an intense confrontation with Professor Van Helsing (actor David Hurst). Snarling, eager for the jugular, he is driven back by a religious talisman. The vampire dashes offstage, shrieking "Sacrilege, sacrilege!" and tumultuous applause follows him into the wings. Once out of sight of the audience, the contorted features relax and there is Raul Julia again, grinning at the applause.
Back in the dressing room, the conversation turns to blood. During the show's run in Washington, representatives of the production have been negotiating with the Red Cross about the possibility of having Julia do a commercial urging people to give blood. There have been problems, partly because there are so many representatives of the Red Cross - local, national and international - in Washington, and they can't seem to reach a consensus on how such a commercial would affect their image.
"Prepare for the end of Act Two," the loudspeaker tells the stage crew. Julia, in his dressing room, is being toweled down by Frank Melon and preparing to put on his second shirt of the evening. This one has no buttons; in a few minutes, for the show's most intensely erotic scene, he will whip it open and force Margaret Whitton to bite his chest, taste his blood.
After first appearing mysteriously behind the bed, he bends Whitton to his will, picks up her limp from lightly and carries it to the bed, hovers over her in a moment of brooding passion, clasps her to his chest and then descends slowly over her, his teeth seeking a good spot on the neck. He remains motionless for a moment after the curtain is down, and then slowly lets her go.
"My favorite scene," he says, smiling, as he returns for the long wait before his next entrance.
Between the acts, Whitton is transformed - she is now an apprentice vampire, and her makeup has more red, her dress is tight, slinky, no longer that of a proper British young lady. "Let me see that." Julia stops here as she passes by. "I never get to see you in that dress."
She models it for him, touching a part of her abdomen through the skin-tight, smooth fabric. "This is the broccoli I had for lunch." The finger moves. "And here's the lamb chop." The vampire's victim has dined more richly than the vampire.
Awaiting his next cue, Julia discusses his next role - Petruccio in a production of "The Taming of the Shrew" which will play in Central Park. For a while, he will be rehearsing Shakespeare in New York during the day while he plays Dracula in Washington at night. Controlled schizophrenia is everyday reality for an actor. Then in October, he will be Dracula again, playing the role for a total of eight months. He looks forward to it. "It's hard at first, but once you get used to it, this role is fun."
A minute later, onstage, in his final confrontation his final escape with dawn creeping up, it does not look like fun. In this performance, the escape is not quite perfect - some members of the audience can see him leave the stage without actually turning into a bat, and it bothers him. "We will have to work on that," he murmurs, heading for the dressing room.
The final scene is easy for Julia: all he has to do is lie in a coffin and when the stake is driven into his heart, let out a horrible scream that blends into a cosmic shout booming and echoing out of the loudspeakers. Then he merely crumbles into dust - no problem at all for an experienced actor.
"Dust to dust; ashes to ashes," intones his nemesis Professor Van Helsing, picking up from the coffin the handful of dust that was once Count Dracula and scattering it to the winds. As soon as the curtain is down, Julia reconstituted, leaps from the coffin and dashes to the wings, waiting for his turn to take a bow.Vampires are a resilient lot.