Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

By Philip Pearce

A TEENAGED BRIT PRODIGY named Mary Shelley wrote a bestselling nineteenth century philosophical thriller called Frankenstein, with more emphasis on the philosophy than the thrills. Early 20th century Hollywood rehashed her story into a movie horror hit that inspired remakes and spinoffs with screen figures from a Nosferatu-like Christopher Lee to Abbott and Costello. Now Teddy Eck makes his debut as MPC’s Theatre Arts Chairman with a new English stage version that returns to Ms Shelley’s 201-year-old plot line and focuses powerfully on the deformed man-made creature who was meant to be Victor Frankenstein’s scientific masterpiece but turned out to be his nemesis.

In many ways it’s a surprising choice for the occasion and the available talent. But the show offers a visually compelling, dramatically exciting first act that tends to bog down in philosophical argument and Victorian posturing when it comes to Act Two. 

From the moment the lights go up on a spectacular laboratory battery shaped like a pulsing human womb we know something important is going to happen. And it does, as the fruit and triumph of the latest Frankenstein lab experiment bursts into life, not as the live manmade Adonis its creator had predicted, but as a lumbering, growling mistake called the Creature.

Local actor Roland Shorter dominates the first half of the action with a power and emotional range that focus on the hapless Creature’s struggles to evolve from beast into human. The moment the Creature bursts into life, it reaches out, clumsy but hopeful, to the man who has built him out of stolen body parts. But Victor Frankenstein (Elijah Morgan) recoils in disgust. Fleeing his rejection, the Creature proceeds to unwittingly terrorize the local community as he wanders lonely and terrified through their conventional neighborhoods. He discovers the wonders of nature in the night sky and—watch Shorter especially in this beautiful sequence—first experiences the miracle of rain falling on his near nakedness. He discovers he has human empathy when he rescues a streetwalker from an attack by a pair of gentlemen thugs, only to be rejected in horror when she pulls back his cloak and sees his grotesque face. 

Step by step Shorter skillfully brings his character to terms with what it means to be human. It happens in brief sequences beautifully mounted in settings designed by Andrew Mannion and lit by Ana Maximoff. And it happens mostly in a silence broken only by the grunts and howls and explosions of terrible discovery that undo the banished Creature. Shorter and Eck produce these telling moments with a precision and truth that reminded me of the work of old masters of silent film pantomime like Lon Chaney.

But the world and its inhabitants keep reminding the Creature that he is awkward and ugly, which motivates local bigots to form impromptu death squads. So he’s fortunate to blunder into the cottage of the local least likely to recoil from physical ugliness, a blind man. Played by Arthur Hatley with warmth and a nice touch of humor that avoids sentimentality, De Lacey becomes the wise welcoming mentor Victor Frankenstein ought to have been. Under De Lacey’s guidance Shorter’s Creature learns to speak, read and write with a speed that defies logic but keeps the story moving.  (Believe it or not, by the end of three years the Creature can quote passages from Milton’s Paradise Lost that comment meaningfully on his situation.) He is also able to explore the dawning of sexual desire, which is enacted in a vivid and moving dream ballet danced by Shorter and production choreographer Melissa Kamnikar.  

The lessons in humanity shared with De Lacey are pretty heavily loaded with 19th century philosophical speculations, but the joy and spontaneity of the Shorter/Hatley relationship makes them acceptable as we root for the Creature’s growth in grace and understanding.

Sadly, if not surprisingly, those qualities shatter when De Lacey’s stodgy, conventional farmer son Felix and hysterical daughter-in-law Agatha (Andrew Johnson and Demi Seva’aetasi) discover and attack the Creature, who reverts to his animal nature by burning De Lacey’s cottage and family to the ground.  

   What follows is the Creature’s wide ranging search for reconciliation with and approval from the father figure who has brought him to life. It’s where the production seemed to me to lose the conviction and coherence of its earlier half. Philosophical speculations abounded and the mannered melodramatic emphasis of Act Two demanded a delicacy and range that were largely lacking in a hardworking but inexperienced cast consisting largely of students. The high-flown period language and situations tended to be attacked by a lot of posturing and waving of arms. An exception was a bright and natural portrayal of Victor’s ill-fated little brother William by Anthony Rodriguez.

Elijah Morgan offered a highly energetic and clear picture of a scientific obsession that trumps all other of Victor Frankenstein’s responsibilities, including marriage to his cousin Elizabeth, played by Madison Snow. But the central battle between Creature and creator was weakened by the decision made by both—Shorter in pleading for respect, Morgan in boasting of a semi-divine mission—to play out their struggle each at the top of his lungs. The result was a sameness of tone and timbre that cancelled out a lot of character contrast and made for the high decibel monotony of two men constantly shouting at each other.

But there is such visual power and clear physicality of performance and pace in the first hour of this new Frankenstein that it would be a shame not to check out this provocative MPC season opener. It continues on the Morgan Stock stage through October 27th.