When he stares down a victim and declares, "I am Dra-kooo-laah!" Paata Tsikurishvili sounds as if he means it. A native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the actor and artistic director of Synetic Theatre speaks English with a thick, exotic intonation -- and for once, his enunciating of vowels and consonants in the manner of Bela Lugosi pays dividends.
Many things about Synetic's new adaptation of "Dracula," in fact, work to the company's -- and the audience's -- advantage. Directed by Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife, Irina, this version of the Bram Stoker classic -- daring in its unvarnished treatment of the horror in the story -- plays enormously to the troupe's gymnastic strengths. And the script by Jonathan Leveck, a former company member, is the best Synetic has worked with in some time. A balance of words and movement is struck so that coherence is not sacrificed in the cause of showing off the company's physical grace.
Dracula is often portrayed as a kind of Byronic figure, a vampire who not only drains arteries but also quickens the pulses of repressed Victorian womanhood. The other popular route these days is to treat the bloodlust as pure camp. Synetic has in mind neither romanticism nor kitsch, however. With this Dracula, what you see is what you get: a demon who goes passionately for the jugular. No effort is made to humanize him, to give him redeeming qualities. We're offered an explanation at both the beginning and the end of the 90-minute production that he's possessed, empty heart and withered soul, by the devil.
In Tsikurishvili's menacing, agile embodiment, he is, then, the Dracula of melodrama, and the story Synetic seeks to tell is emphatically of the good-and-evil variety, of the havoc he wreaks and the efforts of God-fearing men to stop him.
Occasionally, though, this "Dracula" feels so solemn that you're not sure any levity is intended. "I have already dined," Dracula explains to Harker (Greg Marzullo), the gullible guest in his Transylvania castle. "And I never drink . . . wine." A light touch is not a forte of this company, and as a result any apparent wit in the adaptation tends to be smothered. Still, an irony-free "Dracula" is a novelty. And what's been developed satisfyingly -- as often is the case with Synetic's work -- is a breaking down of text into a series of powerful, cinematic vignettes. As usual, too, a lush recorded score is piped into the Rosslyn Spectrum as accompaniment, and choreographer Irina -- who in a departure from custom is not performing -- uses sinewy dance to burrow to the sensual core of the piece. (The company moved the show to its Arlington home base, after a weekend of performances at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.)
Employed, for instance, to great effect are the undead women of Dracula's castle, a trio of slinky Transylvanian groupies (Catherine Gasta, Cyana Cook and Irina Koval) forever on the prowl for plasma. They make their way to London with Dracula and, mixing with a crowd of men dashing through streets in the rain, sink their teeth balletically into a few choice necks. The sequence unfolds like a garish bloodsuckers' ball.
To heighten the eeriness, Paata Tsikurishvili uses a minimum of scenic elements and a limited color palette: A stark black, white and red set and costumes by Anastasia Ryurikov Simes. The design is often effective, but the idea of stringing pieces of red netting across the stage -- the better to ensnare Dracula's victims -- is a tad too literal. More inventive is the deployment of a simple bolt of black fabric that in one episode defines a graveyard and in the next becomes the hull of a ship.
The story treads the familiar path of Dracula's relocation from Transylvania to London in search of new victims for forced transfusions. It covers his stalking of nubile Lucy (Jodi Niehoff) and Harker's young wife, Mina (Anna Lane), as well as his pursuit by the earnest, plodding Dr. Van Helsing (Armand Sindoni, a last-minute replacement for another company stalwart, Irakli Kavsadze, who is injured). What transfixes the Tsikurishvilis is not so much the terror spread by Dracula, as the power he wields. As a result, the scenes of blood-soaked seduction are some of the most potent in the show.
Niehoff and Lane have had small parts in other Synetic presentations, but here, given more to do, they prove winningly up to their challenges. Niehoff's Lucy, in particular, swoons with a swanlike panache, and her prowess is apparent in her final, throes-of-death contortions. Tsikurishvili, meanwhile, shakes and rattles admirably as a Dracula who derives additional thrills from tearing open his shirt and offering his victims a reciprocal sip.
The men in the cast who don't get to guzzle blood don't have much fun, except for Nicholas Allen, who plays Renfield, Dracula's caged, crazed acolyte. In this version, Renfield doesn't have much to do, aside from caterwauling and eating vermin from behind the bars of his cage. (How he's able to propel the cage across the stage on his own is not readily explained. Still, he dies a swell death.) The scenes in which Dracula's pursuers brandish crucifixes and gasp at the vampire's handiwork are among the most perfunctory. By and large, however, the terse dialogue scenes are a major improvement over the sluggish, talky sequences in other recent Synetic offerings.
Tsikurishvili's stealthy Dracula -- his pitter-patter gait suggests a creature who moves like a hovercraft -- is more furtive than ferocious. This may be a wise way to go with a character to whom spectators bring such a long acquaintance. You're not sure what's going on behind those dark, soulful eyes -- except, of course, when they are recording the pleasure of downing a fresh pint.
Dracula, by Jonathan Leveck, based on Bram Stoker's novel. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; set and costumes, Anastasia Ryurikov Simes; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Irakli Kavsadze and Paata Tsikurishvili. With Philip Fletcher, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, Nathan Weinberger, Dan Istrate, Geoff Nelson. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Oct. 23 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-824-8060 or visit www.synetictheater.org.
Paata Tsikurishvili's Dracula is as dark and sinister as they come: No effort is made to humanize him.