Victorian-era London unclotted in Whitman’s original version of ‘Dracula.’

Sam Zeisel keeps hearing rumors that he’ll eat real bugs. As a middle-schooler three years ago, he watched several classmates eat 17-year cicadas, but Zeisel never ate one himself. Now a Whitman freshman playing Renfield in the school’s production of "Dracula," Zeisel is ready to eat the real bugs if need be.

"It’s something you need to do before you die," Zeisel said.

On the gross-out and fear-factor scales, "Dracula" will hold plenty of appeal. Dracula has fangs and red eyes, he eats a human heart, and characters bleed. But there's more to this production than that.

"There’s going to be blood, but that’s not what it’s about. … It’s not a freakout," Zeisel said. "This is intellectual, in a sense. It makes you think."

That can’t be said for all of the myriad "Dracula" productions on screen or stage. Whitman Director Christopher Gerkin felt too many were "either very dusty … or very campy." Strict adaptations of the Bram Stoker novel can drag at times; flip modern adaptations turn the vampire into a cartoon. Last summer, Gerkin turned to Rachel Safier, a professional writer in Washington, D.C., to write a "Dracula" that would serve up both thrills and food for thought.

Safier was both thrilled and humbled by the project. "It's an adaptation from a genius," said Safier, who met a group of Whitman performers before she began writing. "We had a really intense conversation about 'Dracula,' and what resonated with them."

"It ended up being really different from the book, in a good way," said sophomore Jessica Huey, who plays Mina Murray. "It’s an amazing script. … I had to change everything I knew about this character."

A 15-member cast of Whitman students performs "Dracula" Thursday, Feb. 15 through Saturday, Feb. 17.

DRACULA HIMSELF is different from the character in other versions, said senior Chris Carothers. "A thing that keeps a character human is a sense of struggle," said Carothers, who stars as Dracula. Whitman’s production shows Dracula’s back story that begins in the 15th century and develops through the centuries until Victorian-era London, where the play is set.

"We’re not having a pity party for Dracula," Carothers said. All the same, Dracula is a man aware of how he lost much of his humanity. He’s repulsive, yet there remains that tiny piece of humanity that an audience may be able to relate to. "A sense of self-hatred keeps Dracula from camp," Carothers said.

Mina, meanwhile, struggles against the mores of Victorian-era London. Huey researched Victorian etiquette to better learn her role. Onstage, more than just her accent and attire are affected — the way Huey walks, sits, converses and makes friendships are all colored by her environment. She’s not supposed to speak unless spoken to, and she’s not supposed to hug her friends.

"You can’t say things. You have to allude to it. … Otherwise, you’re doing something inappropriate," Huey said. "There’s so many undercurrents of repression that when we stage them in the time period, we can really bring them out."

Is it any wonder, then, that somebody both evil and liberating enters the scene? Characters like Renfield, played by Zeisel, are drawn to Dracula even as they’re repulsed by him. "They’re attracted to Dracula for his ability to give them a freedom," Zeisel said.

MULTIMEDIA techniques will tell Dracula’s story. Flashbacks to murders and other pivotal parts of Dracula’s life are shown onscreen, with surround-sound effects. There’s a musical soundtrack to some scenes — Dracula emerging from the coffin to orchestral music is a powerful moment. But please don’t expect a musical, said Carothers. "It helps that it’s not a musical, because singing vampires are silly."

While the performers aim for the occasional laugh and have a healthy sense of dark humor, this performance is not for everybody. As director, Gerkin suggests that parents think carefully about bringing anybody under the age of 10. What’s tolerable onscreen may pack more power in a live performance, and with the intensity of the effects and a bit of audience interaction, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Huey is performing in her first Whitman production, and she likes the way it’s taking shape. "We have an amazing theater program here, and I’m very lucky to be part of it," Huey said. "When we put things together we can really take them far."