note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Lately, monsters are in vogue everywhere - in theaters, on TV, even Lady Gaga’s little monster fans. That trend is evident in Neal Bell’s provocative adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” currently appearing with the Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP) through Feb. 25.
Although Bell’s play has flaws, Director Jim Petosa, (who was recently appointed as artistic director of New Repertory Theatre), keeps the suspense so intense in the intimate space at Lane-Comley Studio 210, last Wednesday’s audience was awestruck at the end of the first act. Hushed and motionless, nobody moved or whispered. Nobody applauded - not because they weren’t appreciative - but because they didn’t know what to expect next.
The creepy tale is punctuated by Chris Brusberg’s dramatic lighting and Steve Dee’s battery of sound effects. Adrienne Carlile’s costumes heighten the gothic, early 1800’s setting.
Theatergoers are seated near the actors, who perform not on a stage, but on the theater floor, without a set, using only a few props. The actors also enter and exit nearby, weaving between, around, and behind the audience seated on four sides. When John Zdrojeski as the monster-creature runs across the floor, his eyes blazing with morbid fury, he’s frightening. And when he slinks behind his victims, or fiendishly lures them to their deaths, he’s terrifying.
That aside, what sets this play apart from all other monster offerings? Is it Bell’s (and Mary Shelley’s) sheer horror of creating a supernatural, living breathing thing out of several cadaver parts, which young scientist Victor Frankenstein says nobody cared about and wouldn’t miss? How about his taking strips off his own flesh to create the monster’s epidermis? Why did this intelligent, cultured young man create a living, breathing monster anyway?
Although Victor has a probing, scientific mind, and as a youngster wants to become a surgeon, he also has a loving, tender side, which he showers on his beautiful, ethereal cousin and childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth, whom Britian Seibert portrays with grace, patience, and youthful innocence.
The plot switches from Victor’s roaming a wintry wasteland somewhere near the Arctic Ocean, to flashbacks during his childhood and youth, as he restlessly relates his tale to a stranded sea captain, (Tim Spears), who’s in search of the unknown. Like Frankenstein, he achieved it in the godforsaken area. Although the stranded ship sets the stage for Victor’s hideous tale, it’s unnecessary. Searching for help or civilization, the captain steps on land and finds a man in a flowing black cloak, wandering alone in the stark wilderness, searching for something, or someone. Wild dogs howl. They jump on the man. They’re found later, ripped apart. Then Victor tells his tale of woe.
Even as a child, Victor Frankenstein, (whom Michael Kaye portrays zealously), longs to find the secret of life to eradicate death. He affectionately swoops up his mom’s favorite pet cat, (effectively portrayed by Jake McLean, who is also terrific as Victor’s eager young brother, William). As the personified feline purrs and nudges against Victor, the youth intends to kill and eviscerate it, to continue his experiments.
Most stirring is when Victor throws a large, inert sack on a table in the basement, ties a lantern-type prop to a kite string to capture electricity during a storm, and zaps the creature to life. It jerks, writhes, screams, and speaks haltingly. “I want to go home. I hurt. Help me. I’m afraid.” He longs to be hugged. After Victor realizes what he’s done and questions himself, he releases the creature into the forest, abandoning it without food, clothing, or shelter, telling it to fend for itself. And it does, with vengeful fury.
As Bell’s tale shifts from one murderous incident to another, including Frankenstein’s servant Justine being unjustly accused of and executed for murdering William, and the creature’s insistence that Victor zap her cadaver back to life to become his bride, each scene is increasingly nerve-wracking and compelling. Cloteal L. Horne in dual roles as Justine and Victor’s mother also delivers a commanding performance, especially during physically demanding scenes.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” by Neal Bell, appearing with the Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP) at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through Feb. 25. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20; students, senior citizens and groups of 10+, $15. Visit www.bu.edu/cfa/bcap or the Box Office, call 617-933-8600