The House of Besarab
H.A.L.T. at the Hollywood American Legion
As with its illustrious predecessor before it, the interactive environmental hit play Tamara, which played for 11 years at the incredibly austere and dankly ghostly 80-year-old Hollywood American Legion building right down the street from the Hollywood Bowl, the world premiere of Terance M. Duddy and Theodore T. Ott’s often bloodcurdling and always deliberately campy adaptation of the legend of Dracula, The House of Besarab, is a real pleasure for Los Angeles audiences to savor and enjoy.
Granted, my guests and I were all were in a party mood and acted like naughty teenagers throughout, which seemed to work fine considering the nature of this totally enjoyable new play. Before curtain, I had two very large martinis in the Legion Hall’s famous Deco Bar — where you can almost feel the presence of the place’s most famous regular nightly hard-drinking patrons Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Charlie Chaplin — and spent most of the night grinning like an idiot because I was having so much fun.
Although I wasn’t a fan of everyone or everything in The House of Besarab, the overall event provides a wonderful entertainment and a great night out. Luckily, considering my martini-induced euphoria, my wife completely followed the story and helped the rest of us along. I suppose one of my own problems or distractions was that I spent way too much time looking around me at the amazingly bizarre building itself, which is like the eleventh character — if not the main one—in this one-of-a-kind experience created specifically to play in this location.
As the press materials included informed us, might be “visual deja vu for rabid motion picture and television fans” as the place where parts of such films as Kubrick’s The Shining and the new Star Trek movie were shot, as well as scenes for the current hit TV series Flash Forward. Marilyn Monroe and a host of famous starlets were introduced to Hollywood in the Auditorium, known in The House of Besarab as Count Dracula’s “Great Hall.”
In general, the cast could not be better, especially as they deal with audience members who walk and sit around them as they move with them from room to room in the massive gothic structure. Michael Hegedus is an impeccably creepy and powerful Count Dracula, spitting threats through his pointed fangs and looking like a refugee from an old Bela Lugosi movie, popping veins in his forehead and all. I missed that this Dracula seemed to not have many powers, especially hoping that the spectacular sword fight that ends the show would have him trumping Jonathan Harker (Dane Bowman) with his mind and not only using his broadsword.
I wish the writer-producers had opted for more special effects for the character of the Count, as sometimes he seemed so much more dangerous in description than in person. And a note on his attire: his tailcoat just didn't fit, looking like he was going to conduct the Monrovia Symphony Orchestra and not command the massive and visually stunning Castle Besarab. And while we’re on the subject of Sara Spink’s costuming, I do have another suggestion: that the staff people be dressed like peasants or some other characters, rather than lurking around the periphery looking like members of the Delta Force
As that notorious vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, Travis Michael Holder is absolutely faultless in the role and is the heart of The House of Besarab. His inclusion is brilliant casting and Holder’s constant commitment to the reality of the play, all the while keeping his performance tongue-in-cheek and finding ways to pay whimsical homage back a performance by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in some 1950s British B-movie, gives the whole evening a solidity it would not have otherwise without his performance. This is yet another excellent character from one of Los Angeles’ finest craftsmen. The fact is, he steals the show, and they’re lucky to have him. Without his stabilizing influence and consistency, sometimes Mr. Duddy’s direction lets the play become a collection of different conflicting styles, genres, and sometimes also inconsistent accents.
The dashing performance of the handsome Bowman as Harker is a really important part of the success of this show, as is the delicate work Chase McKenna as his compromised fiancée Mina, the hauntingly lovely young thing Count Dracula recognizes as his wife killed some 400 years earlier and whom he has made a vampiric pact with Satan to have at his side once again. Bowman fights which the skill of Douglas Fairbanks and, along with McKenna, the pair is totally charming and believable as the play’s swooning star-crossed lovers.
The diminutive Terra Shelman looks like a painting by Toulouse Lautrec as the Victorian henna-haired Dr. Seward, delivering every line with the utmost care and sincerity, especially when she is trying to get her former mental patient Renfield (David Himes) to return to her care in her psychiatric hospital in London. Himes is superlative as the unstable but dear little man Renfield, bringing a sweeping Shakespearean bent to the intentionally over-the-top Hammer Films-like proceedings at every turn, all the while still snacking on his character’s most delicious snack: toasted bugs and dried-up flies.
Megan Harwick and Sara Spink are gorgeous and unsettlingly mesmerizing as the Count’s pregnant vixen sisters Cruxa and Riva, floating around the place like woeful spirits, and Jason Parsons is also a standout—especially in a very believable fight scene with Bowman that ends badly for the transforming wolfen villager Dracula has chosen to torture to avenge for Mina’s original death. The octogenarian Miliza Milo completes the gifted cast as a frightening Gypsy Woman, handing our crucifixes to guests outside the theater before the show begins and warning them all of the dangers awaiting them inside the castle.
Whatever minor grievances one might have with visiting The House of Besarab, some good word of mouth around town could make the show a huge hit, I believe. Congratulations to everyone involved on such a magnificent job and a special loud cheer for Travis Michael Holder’s long awaited return to the boards after a long illness. Welcome home, Mr. Holder, and welcome The House of Besarab to the annals of Los Angeles theater history! Hopefully it will play for a long, long time after its scheduled closing right before Christmas, since this production, like Tamara before it, deserves at least an 11-year run. I for one hope it makes it even beyond and breaks that previous record!
The House of Besarab is scheduled to play indefinitely at the Hollywood American Legion, 2035 N. Highland Av., just south of the Hollywood Bowl; for tickets, call 323.960.7612 or online at www.plays411.com/besarab