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For director Nathan Bush, a spooky childhood memory proved to be the catalyst for the Oregon State University Theatre production of "The Passion of Dracula."

"Literature Comes to Life" is the theme for this year's season, and Bush and colleagues were looking for something suitably scary to stage around Halloween.

But as Bush reviewed stage adaptations of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," he quickly came face-to-face with an unfortunate truth: Most of them, well, sucked.

"They had either way too complicated plots," Bush recalled in an interview about his show, which opens tonight at OSU, or presented other staging challenges: "One of them opened with a 15-minute audio prologue," delivered via voiceover. Nothing like that to rivet an audience. 

But then Bush recalled seeing a production of "The Passion of Dracula" in a community theater in Frankfurt, Kentucky, when he was a kid of just 12 or 13. "I just thought it was really imaginative," he said.

So he tracked down the play, by David Richmond and Bob Hall, and found that it hit the right notes.

"The Passion of Dracula" is updated a bit from Stoker's original novel — the show, for example, is set in 1911 London, right before World War I.

"It reads more like a murder mystery," Bush said. "Who's killing the young women? Why has the ingenue fallen ill? ... This is more of a melodrama."

But even a melodrama as juicy as this one requires that it find just the right tone: "The Passion of Dracula" still needs to have some scares. The cast needs to play it relatively straight (because, after all, it's not hard to figure out who's behind the mysterious deaths.) And it needs to be fun and entertaining.

So Bush said he and his cast have worked to find the right balance: "This isn't like horror in the sense of a straight horror performance," he said. "But there are some frightening moments that we can capitalize on." (He added that the show likely is suitable for middle school students and up; after all, that's about the age Bush was when he first saw the show.)

He said the cast is rising to the challenge to have fun with the material: "We're having fun within the work."

Another challenge for the cast is working with the production's numerous sound and lighting effects: The show features some 75 sound cues — wolves howling in the distance, a small army of rats scurrying away and so forth — that the actors must be ready for. 

At its heart, though, "The Passion of Dracula" taps into a rich vein of fascination with the idea of vampires. Bush thinks he understands the appeal: "They're allowed to be everywhere," he says of vampires. "They're immortality, but their immortality is both a blessing and a curse. ... Would we pay the price?"

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