Dracula: A Case Study
Theatre Off Jackson
Through Nov 3.
It's hard to imagine the play that couldn't be improved by live music, and without the three-piece Ensemble Sub Masa, Dracula would be a bloodless experience. The violinist, accordionist, and bassist-cum-saw-player lift the production—a retelling of a gothic novel, which lives and dies by its mood—beyond the mundane.
The conceit is promising: Mina, Doctor Van Helsing, and Renfield are inmates in Doctor John Seward's insane asylum. (For those who need brushing up: Mina is the girlfriend of Jonathan Harker, the guy who visited Dracula in Transylvania. Lucy, her dead friend, was Dracula's first victim. Seward is a doctor and the one-time pupil of Van Helsing, who is a vampire expert. Renfield was, is, and always will be a crazy guy in an asylum; in this version, he also plays the violin.) Seward thinks they're all nuts and rejects the vampire story as a delusion, but has the inmates play it out with puppets for therapeutic purposes. Brian Kooser has written a funny adaptation that is blessedly sparing with the camp (though he couldn't resist making hay with the Lucy-Mina lesbian subtext) and remembers the oft-neglected parts, like the ghostly Russian ship that brings Dracula to England and Lucy's three suitors, including the over-the-top American cowboy Quincy Morris. Actors David Goldstein (Seward, the cowboy) and Gavin Cummins (Van Helsing, a few others) are lively. Holly Chernobyl, who plays Mina, is all pout, even when the script demands another affect. But the audience is happiest whenever Seward shouts: "Renfield! Music!" BRENDAN KILEY
What've We Done to Baby Jane?
Lisimo Productions at Re-bar
Through Nov 10.
Imogen Love, Ed Hawkins, and Lisa Sanphillippo endeavor to out-camp camp with negligible results. The company sticks to the formula for winking parody ("if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing"), but the target is too easy and watching the production barely hit isn't very interesting. Only six people attended last Thursday's production. Two walked out. BRENDAN KILEY
I Feel Fine
Helsinki Syndrome at Annex Theatre
Through Nov 10.
Performance art isn't often fun, but performance art that's nothing but fun is even rarer. The thesis of I Feel Fine seems to be that when the apocalypse comes, people will go nuts (a notion that's been confirmed during history's many false alarms) and that it will be fun (a notion that hasn't). Most of the evening is given over to shenanigans: plates of appetizers served to the audience, karaoke belted out from the platform of an electric chair, actors disrobing and rerobing onstage, a UFO in the shape of a bell pepper that descends from the ceiling, nicely choreographed social dancing, and, most memorably, a scene in which two young men in white underwear and unicorn headdresses leap winsomely off a chaise lounge and charge at each other.
The ensemble, led by High Kindergarten Performance Group alums Rachel Hynes and Mike Pham, is animated and entertaining. The costumes, which are sort of '20s and sort of '80s and all thrift-store chic, are cute. The set (by Bret Fetzer) includes a line of ice-filled Ziploc baggies that drip incessantly into wine glasses, providing something to look at when there's no dancing. But the show's frivolous intensity is relentless. Not even the occasional mob-style execution is grounds for fear or misgiving. The closest I came to discomfort was when a member of the cast popped up behind my seat and hit on me (you can guess the line, something about making the most of the last night on earth)—but being solicited by a fictional character involves a minimum of anxiety. I'm guessing, given the title, that I Feel Fine is aiming for the casual pop catharsis of the R.E.M. song "It's the End of the World as We Know It" (which doesn't appear in the performance). What a pop song can do in three minutes can't be sustained for 80 without becoming banal. ANNIE WAGNER
800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick
Live Girls! Theater
Through Nov 17.
At the end of Philip K. Dick's life, he skittered around his apartment like a cockroach with a mean speed habit, and, having already built his literary career on paranoia, he started fearing everything, including the air he breathed. At the beginning of 800 Words, Dick (Shawn Belyea) seems genially laid-back, like the Dude from The Big Lebowski with an even longer history of LSD abuse. Things are almost too placid.
Once Dick starts talking to his cat (a puppet charmingly controlled and voiced by Megan Ahiers) and she suggests that he might not be "the most reliable of narrators," it becomes obvious the play's structured like a PKD novel—things appear pleasant before falling apart in a glorious mindfuck. Stanislaw Lem (Nik Perleros, selflessly supporting Belyea) may be a KGB spy trying to get Dick to incorporate Marxist propaganda in his novels, Dick's driving instructor (Perleros again) could be an FBI agent after his secrets, and God may or may not have burgled his apartment.
Belyea grows into the role masterfully as Dick bounces through time, repeatedly losing his wife (Holly Arsenault, blessedly not overplaying the shrill ex-wife card) and falling asleep on top of his desk like Snoopy on his doghouse. The story becomes a conspiracy theorist's wonderland, the set pretty much has a mental breakdown and cracks open, and the talking cat gets the respect it rightfully deserves. It should satisfy fans of Philip K. Dick—and I mean "Ubik is one of the best sci-fi novels ever," not "I kind of liked Paycheck except for that douchey Ben Affleck"—and it serves as a good introduction for the rest of us. It's probably as close to the happy chaos of reading a Dick novel as the stage will ever see. PAUL CONSTANT