The University of Illinois Department of Theatre version of "Dracula" that opened last week at Krannert Center is not a parody. Nor is it a campy take on the tale of the fanged count.
Instead it's the seldom-performed "Dracula" by Scottish writer Liz Lochhead. She hews closely in the script to the 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish writer Bram Stoker.
Director Tom Mitchell said the play even feels like a novel.
"The sort of bloodthirsty nature of things is described in very rich terms," he said. "The characters speak of their desires in a really poetic sort of language. It's rich and interesting."
And Lochhead in her adaptation takes the point of view of the female characters.
"It really looks at the young women threatened by Dracula and the transgressive forces at the beginning of the 20th century when women are claiming more power and breaking free of Victorian morality," said Mitchell, associate head of the university's theater department.
As in the novel, the play is set in Transylvania and England. To establish the requisite atmosphere, there will be smoke, or haze, as well as blood and fangs.
(Theatergoers, though, can get the scoop on the special effects: They are invited to go backstage after the performance Tuesday for a free behind-the-scenes look.)
Stoker, who happened to be the theatrical manager of English actor Sir Henry Irving, used in his novel the tale of a foreign count from the mysterious Carpathian Mountains to explore the nightmares and fears of a generation facing end-of-the-century changes.
"Dracula brings uninhibited sexuality and irrational violence to a culture that had reached a peak of control and reason," Mitchell wrote for the program notes. "Just as the rumblings of war in the East are beginning and the suffrage leagues begin to grow militant, Count Dracula seduces the young ladies of England and challenges their male protectors."
Among the male protectors is Jonathan Harker, a British solicitor (lawyer) who makes an ill-fated trip from England to Transylvania to consult with the count on a property he might want to buy in England.
Playing Harker in the UI production is Christopher Terrell Brown, a townie who is in the bachelor of fine arts acting program at the university and who has appeared in local community theater productions.
Playing Dracula is theater faculty member J.W. Morrissette. Mitchell cast him as the count because he feared he might be short of male students, as females outnumber males in the Illinois BFA and MFA acting programs.
"Originally we asked J.W. to play the oldest role in the play," Mitchell said. "In this version, Dracula is the oldest character. It's been great; he's wonderful."
Morrissette is head of the department's theater studies program and director of the Repertory Theatre Program at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. He has a master of fine arts degree in acting from the UI.
Mitchell said theater in general offers an excellent way to explore the inner longings and fears that live in our minds. At least two other plays being offered by the UI Department of Theatre this season allow theatergoers to consider that as well as the "minds of our 19th century forebearers," Mitchell wrote.
Those plays are:
— "A Dream Play" by August Strindberg. Written in 1901, the landmark play was new for its times, offering a shifting dream reality in which characters have representational meanings, time moves forward and back and locations dissolve and reappear.
It will be presented Oct. 25-Nov. 4 and be directed by Max Truax, considered Chicago's leading avant-garde director.
— "Spring Awakening," with book by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, from Frank Wedekind. The 2007 Broadway hit musical is based on Wedekind's late 19th-century German masterpiece that explores the ways in which students deal with the frustrating, mysterious and tragic results of their sexual obsessions.
It will be presented April 11-21.
If you go
What: University of Illinois Department of Theatre presents "Dracula," adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead, based on the Bram Stoker novel, directed by Tom Mitchell, associate head of the department.
When: 7:30 Oct. 18-20; 3 p.m. Oct. 21
Where: Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $16 for adults; $15 for seniors; $10 for UI students and youths high school age and younger (tickets are two for the price of one on Thursdays)
More info: 333-6280; http://www.krannertcenter.com 
Friends membership bonuses
If you want to follow the University of Illinois Department of Theatre and its students, including the new master of fine arts acting class that just started this fall, consider becoming part of the Friends of Theatre.
The informal group has no membership fees and no annual due. It features opening-night celebrations, talkbacks and other events.
Tom Mitchell, associate head of the department, called Friends of Theatre a grass-roots group and said it draws different people for each play. It's actually open to anyone who shows up for a play.
And at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Friends may go backstage with the students and staff members who designed, rehearsed and built the production of Dracula to learn about the tricks of the trade.
For more information, call 333-2371.