Your Invisible Corset
Written by Patricia Lynn
Directed by Jacob Titus
Presented by Hunger & Thirst Theatre at the Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente
October 12-27, 2018
Nearly a century and a quarter after its publication, Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula continues to be one of the most adapted texts in the canon of Western horror. With Your Invisible Corset, Patricia Lynn adds to that tradition, as well as to the tradition of interrogating vampires and sexuality, in a "female-focused" stage version of Stoker's narrative. Shifting the action to Rhode Island and (pointedly) to October 2016, on a set made up of human-sized wooden crates whose import any reader of the original Dracula will recognize, Your Invisible Corset is a perfect fit for those who like their scares to have something to say.
Corset throws the audience into events in medias res (which also means that it wisely skips the standard part where everyone has to be convinced that vampires exist and so on). It begins with a disoriented Mina (Patricia Lynn) trying to remember what happened and why she is wearing her husband John's (Patrick T. Horn) shirt (itself at least in part a plaid corset, later disagreements suggest)—besides that she was kidnapped by a vampire. Under the watchful eyes of John and Susan (Elizabeth Anne Rimar), Mina attempts to recover from her ordeal and to piece together exactly what is happening. Lucy (Emily Kitchens), whose marriage to Susan has been failing and who, for awhile anyway, seems energized rather than terrified by whatever has occurred and exudes casual glamour in her ever-present sunglasses and scarf. She wants to compare her own strange, vivid dreams with Mina's, and draws from her friend a description of a nightmare in which she is being tied into the titular corset too tightly even to breathe. Mina, a former assistant schoolmistress in Stoker, is here a professor, up for tenure in a department with a mansplaining chair and fully onboard with being described as "headstrong." Her independence and drive bring her into conflict with John and Susan, whose methods for keeping Mina safe involve trying to keep her partly in the dark and who refer to Count Dracula (Nathan Reese Edmondson) as "it" while Mina and Lucy use "he." Mina believes that understanding Dracula's motivations would assist their cause, but John counters that he doesn't need to understand something in order to kill it, asserting that for once, he is the expert and not her, and all but telling her to know her place.
Renfield (Lauren Lubow), however, a psychiatric patient under Susan's care, praises Mina's curiosity and desire to know. Renfield has changed gender from the novel but retained her plan to evolve and become worthy of her master by consuming the blood of increasingly complex organisms, and she compares Mina to the curious creature currently at the top of her wish-list, calling her feline. Mina, like Susan in her own way, worries that she is perhaps too careful, and it isn't too difficult to see the way that John expresses his love for her—such as saying that he just wants to protect her, including from herself—as oppressive, so when Lucy argues that Dracula offers a path to female freedom and empowerment, Mina is tempted.
But if it may seem obvious where things are headed, it's not; and the second half turns a lot of expectations on their heads. Saying much more would be a disservice, so suffice it to say that Your Invisible Corset is unabashedly a vampire story at the same time as it examines (gendered) trauma, false allyship, shame as a weapon, and the fact that love does not justify denial of agency. When Mina is confronted with the possibilities that killing her attacker will not kill the fear that he has inspired in her, and that she will only ever been seen by others as her trauma, these moments are surely as frightening and as powerful as any undead monster. The play also comments on and subverts or inverts genre tropes, such as the woman-in-peril or the (sexual) assault or murder of a woman as the motivation for male protagonists, conventions no less rooted in patriarchal assumptions and modes of thought.
It is not easy to pull off horror onstage, but this production, aided by effective lighting and sound design, succeeds in maintaining an atmosphere of tension and intensity, as well as, significantly, in having the audience experience some of same sense of disorientation that Mina is feeling. Keeping Dracula himself mostly a shadowy but physically powerful figure also allows him to retain his menace, and Lubow's Renfield often stalks the stage with a lithe animalism that is powerful and threatening in its own way. Kitchens is terrific as contrasting versions of Lucy, one cooly, teasingly confident and one very much not, much as Horn ably embodies both Harker the caring husband and Harker the macho vampire hunter. Rimar brings conviction to Susan's development; and Lynn adeptly teases out the nuances of her Mina, as her intelligence, grit, and determination battle with her confusion, terror, and, of course, her unseen corset.
Hunger & Thirst Theatre is collecting donations of canned food items for The Bowery Mission and monetary donations for the New York Blood Center during the play's run. But those are only additional reasons to attend. The only reason that you need is that Your Invisible Corset is a creepy, clever, and intensely resonant re-envisioning of Dracula for our cultural moment. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler