Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker captures the soul of Bram Stoker’s legendary gothic novel without weighing itself down in overwrought theatrics. Simplicity is key, and both director Melissa Firlit and actor John P. Keller understand this well — as did the play’s creator, Jim Helsinger, when he first adapted the novel for performance on stage. There’s only one voice in the play — that of Jonathan Harker — and through him we hear the story of Count Dracula and the band of heroes determined to destroy him. Such a simple approach might mislead you, but don’t let it. This is one of the best adaptations of Dracula I’ve ever seen.
The Mile Square Theatre’s stage (where the play is being performed until 30 October 2016) is a small and intimate space, and its setting is Jonathan Harker’s attic years after his encounter with Count Dracula. It’s populated with dusty trunks, furniture covered in sheets, mannequins wearing long-forgotten garments, and commonplace gothic knick-knacks. Here we find Jonathan Harker collecting his journals and letters for the Bram Stoker, who has taken interest in the attorney’s supernatural writings and wants to serialize them into a book. As Harker explores the relics from his past, he begins to recall and relive what happened.
Keep in mind that the original Dracula story is an epistolary novel — a method of storytelling presented as collected letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, etc. It’s an intimate form of writing that is dependent upon perception. As such, Dracula himself is never an active character in the Dracula novel — he is only a recollection presented to readers through the subjective lens of the novel’s characters. And no one gives us a better (or darker) vision of Dracula than Jonathan Harker.
Dracula has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and I’m familiar with many of the forms the story has taken over the years. One of my favorite movies is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gary Oldman). And I owe director John Badham’s reimagining of the story in Dracula (1979) a debt of gratitude for my first true introduction to the character as well as my love for the acting of Frank Langella. And now, in October 2016, I’ve seen another adaptation that turns out to be one of the best.
Jonathan Harker is portrayed John P. Keller, who is a one-man powerhouse delivering an edited version of the Dracula novel with near flawless execution. Keller brings to life some of the most vivid chapters containing “Jonathan Harker’s Journal,” which builds the structure for the first act. Yes, these chapters are trimmed of fat to bring out the core atmosphere Harker experiences. Because that’s what good gothic storytelling gives its audience: an immersive and moody atmosphere.
Through Keller’s acting and Firlit’s directing we’re given a pure atmosphere despite the play’s minimalist style. It’s so minimalist, in fact, that at times Keller uses the environment around him — the aisles, the rows of seats, and the hallways outside the theatre — to his advantage. But as a viewer, you’re never lost. If anything, you’re more engaged, both by Keller’s fun with the performance and the excellent use of musical scores and sound effects.
The second act brings us characters like Abraham Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood, Quincey Morris, Mina Murray, Renfield, and Count Dracula himself – all told through Harker’s recollections. Keller brings touches of nuisance and pluck to each character, and despite him being one man, you never feel cheated from a full cast. In the Dracula novel we see the written voices of these characters, and in The Journal of Jonathan Harker those voices come alive through Keller’s spirited acting skills.
I couldn’t have enjoyed Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker more, and I congratulate the Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken, Melissa Firlit, and John P. Keller for producing such a rewarding experience. Your last chance to see this performance is 30 October 2016, so I suggest buying tickets now.