Kevin Gardner’s friends may try to tell him differently, but he feels he knows best what he is.
“I describe myself, and I have always described myself, as a character actor,” said Gardner, who will play professor Abraham Van Helsing in the Curtain Call Theatre production of “Dracula,” which opens Friday. “I have friends who are very supportive and tell me I can take that leading man role, but that just doesn’t interest me.”
Steve Fletcher is directing the production, and among those joining Gardner on stage are Armando Morales as Count Dracula, Kris Anderson as Redfield, Dana Goodknight as Lucy, Ian LaChance as Jonathan Harker and Beth Pietrangelo as Mina Harker.
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 210 Old Loudon Road, Latham
WHEN: Opens Friday and runs through Feb. 9; performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $23
MORE INFO: 877-7529, www.curtaincalltheatre.com
The dominant character in the play, based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel, is obviously Dracula. But, as Fletcher points out, it is the dialogue by the other actors, particularly Gardner as Van Helsing, that drives the action.
“There is Dracula, and Armando has the wonderful stage presence to pull that off, but the Van Helsing role is just as pivotal to the success of the play,” said Fletcher.
“And Kevin, who is as talented as anyone, is at his pinnacle when it comes to jumping into very difficult roles. Without him working in that part, the play doesn’t work. He is passionate, convincing and the character is on this somewhat maniacally dedicated mission to convince the audience and the other characters in the play something they don’t believe in.”
Playing that kind of character is something Gardner relishes about his life in theater.
“I love playing character actors, the oddball, rather than the leading man,” he said. “Even when I was younger, I remembered to ‘know your type,’ and that way you won’t be disappointed down the road. I don’t want to be the straight man who has to win the fight. It’s much more fun being a character actor, and as I get older I have more life experience to help me with these great roles.”
Gardner grew up in East Greenbush, graduated from Columbia High School and attended NYU for a short time before quitting and heading to Los Angeles and taking a two-year program at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After he finished there, he found some work pretty quickly, appearing in an episode of “Roseanne” in 1993 and then landing a recurring role on NBC’s “Saved by the Bell: The New Class,” from 1993-95, playing the character of Milton for 19 episodes.
“I’ve always been a little hesitant to tell people this, but I got paid to be on ‘Saved by the Bell,’ and I had a lot of fun with a recurring role on that show,” he said. “Just before that, I got my first paid job doing ‘Roseanne,’ so I felt very lucky. It was all a great experience, and I really felt like I connected with the lifestyle out there.”
Gardner also worked on Tracey Ullman’s series, “Tracey Takes On . . .,” and did a few short films before returning to the Capital Region in 2008. He kept pretty busy at Curtain Call doing plays such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Harvey” and “Death of a Salesman,” and he also appeared in a Capital Repertory production of “33 Variations.” Two years ago, he moved down to New Jersey and spent a lot of time auditioning for work in New York City.
Country boy at heart
“I think growing up upstate I’m more of a country boy at heart, and I don’t think the city agreed with me,” he said. “Rather than stay there longer than I needed to, I thought I’d come back here. There is such a wonderful theater community in this area I thought why am I running away from all this.”
His time downstate, however, was productive. He played the title role in a Columbia University production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and honed his craft by taking some acting lessons.
“Playing Uncle Vanya was a big role to take on, and I took some classes which were really terrific,” he said. “I think we should all be thrown back in school now and then, to learn something new, remind ourselves of what we forget, and it’s just a wonderful place to explore and take risks. I still love New York City, but I guess it wasn’t the place for me.”
Gardner, who has also done plenty of work as a stage manager, wasn’t that familiar with “Dracula” before preparing to audition for the Curtain Call production.
“I had never seen a stage production, but I did go and watch the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi,” said Gardner. “I love the interaction between all the characters. I have sort of a father-son relationship with one of the characters who has contacted me to look into the condition of his girlfriend, and I’m the one who realizes she’s been bitten by a vampire. Within the scope of this genre, you don’t usually see all this character development, and I think that’s why it’s such a good play.”
In “Dracula,” Van Helsing and a group of his associates are in pursuit of the evil vampire Count Dracula, who is in the process of relocating from Transylvania to England. “Dracula” has had many incarnations, including the 1977 Broadway stage version starring Frank Langella and written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. In 1996, American playwright Steven Dietz adapted his own version for the stage, and while it was never produced on Broadway, it has been a popular production around the country in regional and community theaters.
“I saw the earlier show on Broadway and that is a different version,” said Fletcher. “Steven Dietz is a brilliant writer, but we’ve even taken a few liberties with his interpretation of the story. It’s a very fast-paced play, and the challenge for the director is to keep the story flowing. It jumps from location to location at an amazing rate of speed, and we create those illusions with the lighting and some very quick set changes.”
Although it is a movie about a vampire, those troubled by the sight of blood will have nothing to be worried about in the Curtain Call production.
“There is a lot of blood in the script, but I didn’t want to do it literally, so we are putting on a very stylized production,” said Fletcher. “We have plumes of red scarfs that indicate blood, and we use many theatrical effects to create illusions. The play lends itself to a very dreamlike quality, and there’s so much real horror in the news today we don’t need to do that. We are stylizing our terror in different ways.”