Here’s what I’ve seen onstage lately– let this be a guide and a warning.

DRACULA mounted by The Umbrella Stage Company in Concord, is seasonally appropriate with a twist. This version is playwright Kate Hamill’s take on Bram Stoker’s original which she dubs “A feminist revenge fantasy, really.”  I love a little Dracula and some scary feminist revenge. And one doesn’t have to work hard to imagine why a woman might want to drive a stake through the heart of a certain thirsty Transylvanian and patriarchal predator creeping on any available virgin into which he can sink his fangs. But this production was scary for other reasons. Directed by Michelle Aguillon, the production is missing the playwright’s darkly satiric tone, and a consistent stylistic approach to performance. This wildly uneven cast leaves us with a tedious 2-plus hours of melodramatic moaning, screaming, haughty pronouncements, and blood spatter, and fails to deliver a single moment of real terror, suspense, insight, or humor. Through October 24!

Victorian women battling the patriarchy fare much better at Central Square Theater which has mounted a solid production of ADA AND THE ENGINE,  Lauren Gunderson’s play about 19th century mathematical prodigy Ada Lovelace, the dashing poet Lord Byron’s daughter, who collaborated with mathematician Charles Babbage on his “analytical engine”– the prototype of the computer! Mishy Jacobson is engaging as the eccentric, rambunctiously curious Ada in whom art and science have apparently converged; she plays a mean piano onstage, is drawn to her famous philandering father’s poetry (forbidden by her calculating, mathematician mother) and can envision the future of the engine her older male colleague Babbage (Diego Arciniegas) has yet to realize.

The play requires its able cast, some in dual roles (Kortney Adams as Annabella Byron & Mary Somerville) and John Hardin (Lords Lovelace & Byron), to breathe life into mountains of dialogue about logarithms, algorithms and prime numbers– perhaps a slog for the liberal arts crowd. But hang in there– Gunderson’s script makes quite a case for the poetry of science!

The production benefits from its spare set and Debra Wise’s fleet direction. Through a combination of manners, music, and mathematics, we get another eye-opening look at the strictures women had to break through in order to transcend their station in life and have an impact on the world of ideas. That someone as brilliant and visionary as Ada Lovelace is still relatively unknown in the annals of HIStory, makes me hungry for more tales from the crypt of dead women whose contributions remain buried. Through October 23!

The Thin Place, Gloucester Stage Company, 2020

I also popped up to Gloucester Stage for an adventure in spiritualism as I took in THE THIN PLACE, that world between the seen and the unseen, the real and the unreal, the here and hereafter… Written by Lucas Hnath, the play is like being invited to a ghost story. It begins with two chairs on a stage, one occupied by the teller of the tale, Hilda, who wants to reconnect with the spirit of her dead grandmother. Hilda’s mother has also gone missing– but we don’t know exactly how. Hilda is played by Siobhan Carroll who has a very eerie way of drawing us in with her insinuating voice and large mournful eyes, deep set in a narrow face shrouded by long, straight hair. She’s soon joined onstage by a self-described psychic named Linda played by Cynthia Beckert who has a blonde pixie haircut and a no frills approach to her craft. At one point Linda even draws back the curtain on the mystery by explaining that what she does is “a kind of trick” and that people during a reading unwittingly fill in the blanks for her. Still, it doesn’t explain everything about what we will see on stage, the scary stories which emerge, and what happens with the actual audience in the show’s last moments. I’m still not sure. It held me though, and the matinee I went to featured a real medium in the lobby afterward who “tapped into messages” from the attendees who signed up for her post-show seance. Through October 23!

Indisputably entertaining is MR SWINDLE’S  TRAVELING PECULIARIUM & DRINKORY GARDEN! Set under a “boutique big top” at Harpoon Brewery in Boston’s seaport district, Mr Swindle presented a carnival of entertainments– jugglers, acrobats, contortionists, assorted oddities, occasional nudity, and music with a side of pretzels and beer. This assemblage of curiosities includes all the delightful derring-do of the usual circus fare BUT it’s sandwiched between the racy wise-crackery of a band of bawdy buffoons who skip the peel and get right to the banana, or might suddenly leap into the audience with barely a stitch. These jesters are the show’s biggest selling point, their schtick–more than racy but less than blue–relies on the good humor of mature and immature audiences alike. Not sure where I fall, but I found myself laughing out loud.Through November 6!