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In Michael McKeever's feminist 'Dracula,' the women bite back

The idea of going all gothic on Bram Stoker’s“Dracula” had been buzzing around in Michael McKeever’s head in one form or another for up to 10 years.

“I was a Universal [Studios] monster kid,” McKeever, 56, says from his home in Davie. “My brother and my cousin, we just loved them, those old-school, black-and-white horror films. That really speaks to me, but to do a new version. [‘Dracula’] has been done numerous times as a stage play. If I could just figure out a way in, to make it unique.”

Nothing crystallized for the playwright until 2017, when the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment and assault went viral.

“That’s it,” McKeever recalls thinking. “That’s it right there. In the Bram Stoker novel … the women are primarily there to be victims. They are there to be bitten and molested by the vampire. And he’s the ultimate predator.”

So early this summer, McKeever began writing his version of “Dracula,” which will get a world premiere Oct. 11-28 by Miami theater company Zoetic Stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. What he came up with is a feminist take on the 1897 novel, one in which the women are woke.

“I thought, ‘What if we made them real, contemporary, strong — able to stand up for themselves,” McKeever says. “Looking at the story through that prism, it made it much more interesting. So there are three different women … each of them, in their own way, strong. For example, the vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing, instead of being an old white man is, instead, a strong [black] woman. It gave me a definitive point of view in addressing the material.”

McKeever’s husband, Stuart Meltzer, who is Zoetic Stage’s artistic director, thought the early drafts were solid enough to give the play the first slot of the 2018-2019 season — the Halloween slot. Meltzer is also directing “Dracula.”

At presstime, McKeever was still working on the script. “I have two weeks before rehearsals begin,” he said on Sept. 4. “I’m still working on it now, still polishing it and making revisions as is the case with most world premieres.”

He knows something about launching plays. “Daniel’s Husband,” which bowed in 2015 with a critically lauded production by Island City Stage in Fort Lauderdale, made it to off-Broadway in 2017 with a warmly received version by Primary Stages. The play, about the travails of not having marriage equality with a same-sex couple, will return to off-Broadway this year at Westside Theatre. “That opens the day ‘Dracula’ closes,” McKeever says.

“Daniel’s Husband” was also mounted by the Penguin Rep Theatre last year. The theater in Stony Point, N.Y., is rehearsing “After,” another play by McKeever for the opening of its season this fall. “After,” which concerns parents dealing with the aftermath of bullying among their teenage sons, also was premiered by Zoetic Stage in 2016.

In Europe, McKeever’s comedies “37 Postcards” (about an eccentric family) and “Suite Surrender” (a 1940s farce following two Tinseltown divas vying for the same Palm Beach hotel suite) helped make him a bankable name across the Atlantic. Currently, about nine of McKeever’s titles have been translated for and produced in Germany, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden and Russia.

“I walk around with a goofy grin on my face,” McKeever admits. “Every once in a while, someone will ask me, ‘What’s your real job? Your daytime job?’ I have to say, ‘No, that is my real job. That’s what I do. I’m a playwright.’ ”

While primarily a playwright, McKeever is also an actor, set designer and illustrator. Aside from being artistic director of Zoetic Stage, Meltzer is also a playwright and an instructor at the New World School of the Arts in Miami.

“Once every couple of years, we work together on a project,” McKeever says. “And it’s great because we don’t do it on a regular basis.”

Both agreed that the important thing with “Dracula” is to keep the horror in the drama.

“I wanted to work in the parameters of the story, but … do an original take on it, one that’s true to the vampire theme,” McKeever says. “But at the same time serve the importance of the play being scary. We’ve never done a thriller at Zoetic Stage. One of the priorities is to make it as scary as it could be. Making something scary, making a play scary … onstage, in front of an audience, it’s a challenge. Film you can completely control and direct where the audience is looking, and you have the benefits of CGI and special effects. It’s hard to be doing that live in front of a live audience.”

The key is packing in surprises, McKeever adds. “You just want to make something happen when you least suspect it. You think the play is going in one way, in one direction, and then [we] take it on a totally different path. That’s the challenge. Right now, it’s working on the page. We are always saying that we want to do something that challenges us. ‘Dracula’ is very much that, trying to do something that we haven’t done before. That’s how you stretch yourself as an artist.

“Dracula” will run Oct. 11-28 in the Carnival Studio Theatre at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, with 3 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $50. To order, call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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