By Will Broaddus
---- — You may be able to kill Dracula with a wooden stake, but as a fictional character he will always be undead.
After debuting in 1897 in Bram Stoker’s novel, the bloodthirsty count appeared in several stage versions before being portrayed in films by Bela Lugosi (1931), Christopher Lee (1958) and Gary Oldman (1992), among others.
If you count the vampires that followed Stoker’s original, from Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” to Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, it’s hard to believe these evil beings haven’t conquered the world.
That may have been Dracula’s plan all along according to Dann Maurno, who wrote and appears in “Dracula’s Guest” at the Salem Theatre Company.
“I always wanted to play him as a warrior king, because that is what Stoker did,” Maurno said. “No adaptation preserves the idea of a warrior prince looking for his new principality.”
Dracula was bored with terrorizing the peasants around his castle, Maurno said, and wanted to attack the biggest, baddest foe he could find: the British Empire.
The historical model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, was a dominant warlord in Eastern Europe and in Stoker’s fantasy, in which Vlad’s military prowess is enhanced by supernatural powers.
“This is somebody who is a fantastic warrior,” Maurno said. “He’s a perfect predator and he can do something that shark in Jaws can’t do: he can damn you to hell.”
Maurno’s play is based on the first 60 pages of Stoker’s novel, where this vision of a warlord count is developed. It’s a part of the story that is usually edited in previous versions, in favor of moving the action to England, where Dracula is typically painted as more of a lover than a fighter.
“A romantic Dracula in purple velvet is something that is not a threat,” Maurno said. “I thought Coppola descended into a soupy love story, with a lot of weeping and bare nipples.” Francis Ford Coppola directed the 1992 “Dracula” movie.
The guest in Maurno’s play is Jonathan Harker, an attorney who visits castle Dracula to close a real estate deal, which will allow the vampire to move to London.
“Those first 60 pages are this really gripping hostage drama, one of the first ever written,” Maurno said. “Harker expects to turn it around quickly, but finds himself a hostage.”
While Harker needs Dracula to protect him from other vampires, Dracula needs Harker both to help him find a house and to instruct him in the ways of the English.
“It’s Stockholm syndrome, just like you hear about,” Maurno said. “Here we’ve got a fellow who is dreadfully afraid of the count, but only the count is keeping him alive, so he depends on the count for survival.”
Maurno has played Dracula in traditional stage adaptations of Stoker’s story, and will play him again in the version he’s created.
“The folks at Salem Theatre Company approached me with the idea of putting on a Haunted Happenings event, and I’ve had this idea in mind for years,” he said.
The version they are creating combines several media, in a style that dates from the era when Stoker was writing.
“We conceived it originally as a staged reading, like a radio play,” Maurno said. “But it’s become like Victorian lantern-lit theater. Some is projected, some acted, and all of it is narrated.”
Conor Burke, who is also appearing in the History Alive! productions of “Cry Innocent” and “Goodnight, Captain White,” will play Harker. His challenges include narrating action while interacting with other characters, and creating scenes in words that are beyond the production’s technical scope.
“Some things we simply can’t do realistically, like having him crawl down a wall,” Maurno said. “Instead we have a talented actor painting that picture through sheer skill.”
Salem magician Evan Northrup has been enlisted to create illusions for the play.
“This is a story in which vampire brides appear out of mists and mirrors don’t reflect,” Maurno said. “Evan has concocted some wonderful surprises.”
IF YOU GO ... What: "Dracula's Guest," written and directed by Dann Anthony Maurno. When: Now through Oct. 31 on Tuesday through Sunday at 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. No performance Friday, Nov. 1. Final show Saturday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m. Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem Tickets: $15 at www.salemtheatre.com or by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111.