Inside the Vatican Banquet Hall’s castle-like exterior and fog-filled middle-of-the-room runway interior stage, it’s not hard to envision the longtime struggle between the Van Helsing family of vampire hunters and the Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula, playing out. Only here, the classic tale also happens amid aerialists, acrobats, ballerinas, musicians and plate-spinners.
“Van Helsing’s Dracula,” an immersive dinner theater experience in Van Nuys, reveals a unique iteration of the vampire versus hunter rivalry. Many versions have emerged over the years, yet most people have probably not seen the tale unfold before them while sitting down for a meal with performances (for the next three weekends) that include content advisories warning about “the use of flashing lights, fog/haze, and simulated blood sucking.”
In this new interpretation of the timeless story, Countess Dracula (Frankie Tan) lures Van Helsing (co-director/co-star/co-writer Katie Rediger) and her companion the Lover (Lala Araki) to her place for a party. The interior of the Vatican Banquet Hall, with its dual spiral staircases framing the room and lighting creating lively shadows on the walls, aptly sets the scene.
When Dracula or the Lover were not spinning 10 to 20 feet in the air on a long cloth, or a sculptural apparatus shaped like a spiral steel piece or a pyramid-like structure, all eyes are on dancers Rachele Donofrio, Carolina Saverin, Alicia Salvadori and Taylor Marie — with Jennifer Harrison as an understudy. They contorted and hissed while performing with ropes and LED-lighted hoops, as they protected Dracula and interacted with the audience.
Dancer/choreographer Sarah Mann intentionally sought out acrobatic performers and dancers for the show, knowing this would help “Van Helsing’s Dracula,” the initial offering of her Madmann’s Playground production company, stand out.
“The reason that I was so interested in doing Dracula is because Dracula as a character is naturally a shapeshifter. It lended itself towards contortionists, towards flying through the air with an aerialist, towards motion in general,” says Mann, who was drawn to circus entertainment but is also an accomplished contemporary dancer and choreographer as well.
Mann also took her cues from Teatro ZinZanni, a cirque entertainment show inside the Lotte Hotel Seattle that is celebrating 25 years. She frequented the show growing up and wondered, when coming to L.A., why there was nothing like it here. She gathered a group that came up with an original story (co-written, co-directed by and co-starring actress/poet Rediger and co-written by Corrin Evans), an original score (composed by her Emmy-winning father, Hummie Mann) and an original three-course Romanian meal (designed by chef Anne Apra) that includes vegetarian options.
Even in an intimate venue, a show like this has many moving parts. Mann worked intricate pulley systems to keep dancers aloft, and when she wasn’t narrating the action as the main character, Rediger’s triple duty as star-director-writer was an act of juggling itself. Mann wanted her for the project from the start, and Rediger was ready for an outlet that would make use of her various skills. The pair drive the production, but it is much more than a two-women event.
“If I were directing it alone, it would have been almost impossible, I think,” says Rediger who, after hearing about the project, helped develop and shape its presentation. “But Sarah and I, we’ve done a pretty good job of teaming up. She handled the majority of the choreography, and it’s been a pretty collaborative process as well. All of the performers have had agency to choreograph their own solos.”
What ultimately inspired the show, beyond Dracula, was the capacity to “create this story that has to do with shadow work. You’re facing your own personal shadows and embodying your full, true, whole identity,” Rediger says.
To prepare for the show, Rediger supplied Dracula herself, Tan, with a crash course of clips from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Tan then did some extensive research herself for the role, finding inspiration beyond the Gothic overtones of the original story.
“For my version of Dracula, I was inspired by assassin movies,” Tan says, citing the likes of “Peppermint” and “Salt.” “I have always been a big fan of the female assassin archetype and this idea of a really strong, powerful, feminine figure that can do whatever she wants.”
With Dracula poised to assassinate her longtime rival, Tan rightfully brought this sensibility, and her aerialist abilities, to the role. When putting the circus-centric event together, Mann looked for performers with these instincts and different skills during the casting process.
The music and the food are also key to the experience. Mann’s father, Hummie, created music for “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” “Master of Horror” and many other titles. Yet Hummie initially wasn’t sure if he was the right person for the job.
“I was concerned that because of her extensive background in contemporary dance and hip-hop, that I was the wrong guy to do it,” says Hummie. He had not really looked into the project his daughter was pitching him, though. When he was told by his wife that it it was a Dracula tale, he changed his tune.
“It’s been quite a hoot working with her. One of my concerns, which did not bear out, was whether she would feel comfortable saying, ‘Well, that’s not what I’m looking for.’ But she did request some changes,” says Hummie, visibly beaming. “She understands music. She understands form. She can talk about modulations. She really was able to give me a lot of good input.”
For Mann, working with her father on a show of this scale was an experience that she never thought would happen.
“I knew that my dad was more than qualified to write the type of music that I was interested in for this production,” says Mann. “[But] I sort of was like… I’m a tiny little fish. And he’s got this huge reputation and has won Emmy awards and people know him.”
“Being that he is my dad, obviously, family bickering, and that’s a normal thing, right? However, because I know nothing about writing music, it has been a very seamless experience and just really cool to share the creative collaboration with him.”
Yet Mann’s desire to have the meal complement the production was “tricky.”
“It was one of my hard lines that the food for Madmann’s Playground needs to complement the show, which is tough. I brought in Anne Apra Events, and she brought in Ronan Levy events. And together they have created a menu based on Romanian cuisine,” says Mann. “I wanted to make sure that the audience from the get-go was drawn into the world that we’re creating with the show and with the story, and that the food didn’t take them out of that experience.”
Chef Anne Apra created a menu that would “mimic [Mann’s] interpretation” of food for the project. She was mindful of the setting and the action that was happening around those eating. Besides having fun making things like “steak-on-a-stake,” she also created options for gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian diners.
“Doing some research on ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ really lead to some fun, classic, rustic fare for this feast,” said Apra. “I wanted it to be simple enough to eat so that they wouldn’t be distracted. It should be very easy and quiet food to eat.”
When thinking about a dinner theater, distraction seems to always be in play. But Rediger was also not worried about that particular hurdle.
“We’re not going to be able to control everything that happens. Dinner is served between the acts. The hope is that it will calm down enough for the show to go on without it being crazy distracting. But either way, the show goes on,” says Rediger.
“We want them in the world. You’re not just sitting there as an audience member behind the wall eating your food and just watching what’s happening in front of you. You’re being acknowledged as being in the world in such a way that we hope it draws your attention.”
For Mann, “Van Helsing’s Dracula” is hopefully just the start. There’s a vibrant circus entertainment community in Los Angeles that‘s hungry for more performances like this, she says.
“There’s a niche that hasn’t yet been filled. L.A. doesn’t even have a circus, which to me was shocking because there’s so many circus performers in L.A. There’s a bunch of circus schools,” Mann notes. “There’s tons of talent just because of the commercial industry that’s here with movies and TV and corporate events. They always want circus people. They just don’t have a home in L.A.”
“If I’m going to create an experience, this would be an experience that’s not currently existing, which will, one, satisfy my urge to give circus performers a home, but also create this really cool experience for both theater goers, circus enthusiasts and foodies.”
This story originally appeared on LATimes