Creature feature

The Tragedy of Frankenstein

Written and directed by William Gilmore
Praxis Theatre Co.
Looking Glass Theatre
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

[Editor's note: the reviewer adapted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the stage in the form of Frankenstein: The Musical Drama.]

The Frankenstein story continues to hold sway over dramatic adapters' imaginations, and this production showed why: it offers an opportunity to dabble in stage spectacle and literary effects to the maximum extent of the producer's pocketbook and the artists' skill.

As the audience seated themselves, grotesquely dressed chorus members sat on stage and mingled with the audience, growling and sometimes miming violent acts. The chorus, while enthusiastic, didn't play a very significant role in the production, which quite rightly focused on Frankenstein's story and the dilemma in which he placed himself. The Greek tragedy component, which the chorus reflected, seemed a choice that was stuck on to the original desire to adapt this particular story, and their rough, apelike business didn't enhance the sense of fear and pity presumably intended. Then again, as one of the characters says, "Aristotle would not approve."

As part of the "tragic" overburden, Gilmore includes a fair amount of philosophical blather, much of it spoken by a versifying narrator (Todd Butera), who, while authoritative and slick (with a patented gliding motion, with which he navigated the stage), had to fight his material.

Shelley's book has a flaw that Gilmore faithfully includes: the Creature kills Frankenstein's young brother and frames the family servant, Justine. Frankenstein must remain mute in Justine's defense to protect his guilty secret, so that the story can proceed. Unfortunately, doing so makes him a coward, hardly a suitable protagonist for a Greek (or any other) tragedy. Indeed, the whole Justine subplot is a melodramatic red herring that can be dispensed with, but then the author would have to be less faithful to his source. (Adapting Frankenstein to the stage can resemble wrestling with a block of granite.) In Gilmore's defense, he downplays this particular aspect of the story.

The original is told as a series of letters within letters -- a nested sequence of epistolary flashbacks starting in the Arctic, where a sea captain tells of his encounter with the two principal characters. Shelley used this technique because the novel hadn't yet been officially invented, and she knew no better way to tell a story. Fortunately Gilmore for the most part eschews the technique; when he does use letters (between Frankenstein and his love, Elizabeth), he adapts them cleverly to the stage to show the passage of time and the strains on the lovers' relationship while Frankenstein is away studying and experimenting.

The casting was generally superb. Justine (Erika Beth Phillips), the family servant who helped bring up Frankenstein, should have been cast older. Christopher Michael Todd, while true to the character of Victor's buddy Henri Clerval, applied a bit too much foppish shtick. Otherwise, Matthew Bray's Frankenstein was the model of the fiery intellectual and scientist who will stop at nothing to achieve knowledge; Charles Scott Richard as the Creature was compelling, especially as he became more competent in English and could express his deep-seated ambivalence about his creator; Karin Linnér's Elizabeth was thoughtful and complex, though she is doomed to lose out to Frankenstein's absorption in his science and his ambition; and Richard Kohn's Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's father, was the model of the concerned bourgeois parent. Jim Siatkowski as the Old Man who educates the Creature provided some comic relief as well as a touching characterization. (The staging of his violin-playing, in which he played a mute violin but an actress sang wordlessly, was inspired.)

The set, a bare-bones affair with suggested pillars, decorated in red and black, took advantage of the theatre's upper level. There was little suggestion of Frankenstein's laboratory (mostly added in the movie versions). This show was not about monsters and mad scientists: it was a thoughtful and faithful, if sometimes blunt and muddy, adaptation of an important book.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton