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A feminist take on ‘Dracula’ that bites back

Maria Hendricks rehearses a scene from "Dracula: A feminist revenge fantasy, really" at Umbrella Stage Company in Concord. Hendricks plays Dr. Van Helsing.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Director Michelle Aguillon loved Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish, 1992 filmed version of “Dracula.”

“I mean, Gary Oldman as Dracula, plus Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Anthony Hopkins. It was glamorous,” Aguillon says. “But you look at that film now and you can’t help but cringe.” That’s why she says she’s excited to be directing Kate Hamill’s “Dracula” adaptation at the Umbrella Stage Company in Concord. The production runs through Oct. 30 at the company’s new Black Box Theatre.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 tale of a vampire that lives forever by feeding on the blood of humans, preferably virgins, amplified the Victorian notion of women as helpless, easily seduced, and prone to hysteria. But actress and playwright Hamill has added “Dracula” to her adaptations of classics, several of which have had Boston-area productions, including “Sense and Sensibility” (Bedlam at American Repertory Theater), “Pride and Prejudice” (Actors’ Shakespeare Project), and “Vanity Fair” (Underground Railway Theater), where women, rather than men, drive the story.

“Her adaptations shift the emphasis,” says Aguillon, “allowing the women’s voices to be heard.”

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Aguillon, who is on the season selection committee for the Umbrella Stage Company and will direct the world premiere of local playwright Hortense Gerardo’s “Middleton Heights” in the spring, had been advocating for several of Hamill’s adaptations over the past few years. But when she read “Dracula,” she says, “the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I mean, her subtitle alone is irresistible — ‘Dracula: A feminist revenge fantasy, really.’”

Hamill’s version, says Aguillon, goes further than her other adaptations by recasting several roles with female-identifying actors. Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire hunter, is played by Maria Hendricks. In Aguillon’s production, she’s styled after Indiana Jones.

“Hamill gave her an American accent,” says Aguillon, “which gave us permission to have fun, while also working in Maria’s own background as part-Indigenous, part-African.”

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Michelle Aguillon directs a rehearsal of "Dracula: A feminist revenge fantasy, really." Barry Chin/Globe Staff

But more than simply switching genders, Hamill’s adaptation was written in the wake of the #MeToo Movement and offers an opportunity to hear “what women hear in the workplace,” says Aguillon.

“The men often talk over the women characters, reminding them of their ‘place,’ and make comments like, ‘What did you expect when you wore that outfit?’ or ‘We’re just kidding,’” says Aguillon. “These slights gain a new resonance within this familiar story. Hamill wrote it in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and while it celebrates predators who get what they deserve, it also explores the complexity and the difficulty women have of extricating themselves from difficult situations.”

In the original story, lawyer Jonathan Harker stays at Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle to help with the purchase of property in England, only to discover, to his horror, that Dracula is a vampire. When Dracula arrives in England, he goes after Lucy, the best friend of Harker’s fianceé, Mina. Dracula keeps abreast of what’s happening by communicating with Renfield, a patient in an insane asylum run by Dr. Seward. Harker enlists the help of the vampire hunter Van Helsing, and together they destroy Dracula.

Hamill’s adaptation follows the same story, keeping Dracula at the center.

“This is Dracula’s world, and he keeps the focus on himself and his needs,” says Aguillon. “The two female vampires who are beholden to him are in cahoots with him in a codependent way. They rebel against him, but they also depend on him for their survival.”

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The adaptation also offers more insight into the friendship of Lucy and Mina, who talk about marriage and their need to find a match in order to survive within the strictures of Victorian society.

“With Van Helsing played by a female-identifying actor,” Aguillon says, “she encourages the women to band together to find their own power.”

Hamill’s adaptations are also cinematic, moving between many different locations, and relying on creative choreography.

“I’ve been staging shows with a sense of flow for a while now,” says Aguillon. “The settings are abstract so that we can move quickly and be flexible. It allows the actors and the lighting to do most of the work.”

Still, she says, “the play is full of gleeful humor, even when it’s dark.”

What’s new at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre

Boston Playwrights’ Theatre debuts its season of plays by the Boston University MFA class of 2023 with “Eat Your Young” by J.C. Pankratz (Oct. 6-16), which follows four teens enrolled in a new-age wilderness therapy program that takes more than a few unexpected turns. “Eat Your Young” will be followed by “Sävë thë Whälës, etc.,” by David L. Caruso (Nov. 3-13), described as an “environmental comedy about the importance of community, home, and happiness during a crisis; “OTP,” by Elise Wien, set in 2015 when two teens take over a website in an effort to author the best Obama fanfiction ever written; “Jado Jehad,” by Fatima A. Maan (Feb. 16-26), in which a mother and daughter return to Pakistan to “reckon with some irrefutable truths in their lives under the watchful eye of the family matriarch“; “Alligator-a-Phobia in 3D! A Play With Music,” by Jay Eddy (April 6-16), an absurd horror-comedy about alligators, swamps, isolation, and the fear of stepping outside your house. For more information, go to www.BostonPlaywrights.org.

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DRACULA

At the Umbrella Stage Company, Concord. Through Oct. 30. $15-$45. http://theUmbrellaArts.org

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.