Veteran theatrical entrepreneurs Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller adapted “Frankenstein” into a play featuring three clowns, replete with ragged clothes and haunting masks. The question is, “why?”
Chris O’Neill directs and stars in the Shakespeare Carolina production that doesn’t answer that question. While at times visually arresting, this “Frankenstein” is essentially incomprehensible. At best it is ludicrous. At worst it is ludicrous.
If you wrote the scenes of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel on the face of a mirror, threw it against the wall, and tried to put it back together again, you might come up with the script for this play. The outline is familiar, but the details are jumbled. There are poetic diatribes that are lovely but incoherent. Holes in the time/place continuum are puzzling.
This “Frankenstein” explores maternal abandonment and paternal relations. Childhood friends Victor Frankenstein (S. Wilson Lee), Henry Clerval (Chris O’Neill, who also plays the Creature), and the orphan Elizabeth (Katie Bearden) are carefree playmates until Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever. Victor’s ensuing heartbreak fuels his obsession to create life, without birth, and therefore, without death.
Thus Frankenstein invents the Creature, with findings from the graveyard and the butcher shop, his head filled with the brain of a 2 1/2 year old. As quickly as he draws breath, he is abandoned by his creator.
What followed was a crazy scene that made my theater partner and I gasp with muffled laughter. Muffled, because the rest of the audience was silent, as the Creature mimicked a parade of local characters; a man with a jackhammer, a drunk, a fighting couple, all who walked by him demonstrating typical human behavior. He struggled with the human language and gestures. It was both hilarious and pitiful.
Frankenstein’s laboratory, his Swiss village, and the boat where he was found, and from which he told his story, are all on the same stage. A screen made of sheets sported a continuous display of images. First came scenes from the 1931 movie featuring Boris Karloff that was denounced in the play’s opening lines. While the monster was on the loose, the screen displayed city images. When Frankenstein was wandering the Alps, the images were the Alps. The close ups of mosquitoes remain a mystery.
Original music by the Clamor Sound Collective, made up of Jill O’Neill and Matthew Davino, infused the play with atmosphere. It ranged from soothing to a cacophony of discordant jazz, laced with what sounded like a dentist’s drill.
Art Director Jon Pritchard’s inventiveness is well displayed in Frankenstein’s odd spectacles, Elizabeth’s horizontal half-mask, and two clothing racks set on stage like crooked crucifixes. The laboratory backdrop laced with Christmas lights and hanging dolls is appropriately macabre.
“Frankenstein” is a tale of loss, angst, and science gone wrong. But when the dead people keep talking, and the Creature performs a wedding ceremony, it is hard to take these serious topics seriously.
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