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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
FRANKENSTEIN
at Classic Stage Company

PRIMITIVE CREATION
By MATT WINDMAN

  Stephanie Berry and Rob Morrison/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Victor Frankenstein: It’s alive. … It’s alive. It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive!

The Creature: Umm, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but this show is putting me to sleep.

Victor Frankenstein: Jeez, I was just quoting the 1931 movie version, not giving a pull quote. I’m a mad scientist, not a theater critic.

In 2011, the National Theatre presented a large and exciting adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 quintessential gothic-horror novel Frankenstein (which was required reading when I attended high school and probably still is today), with direction by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller switched playing Frankenstein and the Monster from performance to performance. In fact, both casting arrangements were screened in movie theaters as part of the invaluable NT Live series. It’s a shame it did not transfer to New York. Maybe it will one day.

By comparison, Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company is presenting its own scaled-down and condensed, bewildering and boring adaptation of Frankenstein penned by London playwright Tristan Bernays (The Bread & The Beer, Boudica), with direction by Timothy Douglas (whose credits include regional productions at Yale Repertory Theater, Arena Stage and Berkshire Theatre Group). It lasts less than 80 minutes (by comparison, an unabridged audio version of the original book runs about eight hours in length) and is performed by a single performer, Stephanie Berry (Sugar in Our Wounds), plus a musician/sound effects artist (Rob Morrison) who also occasionally serves as Berry’s scene partner.

Frankenstein is running in repertory with a feminist-minded, freewheeling and broad-humored adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Kate Hamill (Sense & Sensibility, Little Women) – a cute arrangement that is reminiscent of the revival movie theaters that used to present double features of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff and Dracula with Bela Lugosi. But even before attending, I heard through the grapevine that Frankenstein was almost twice as short as Dracula but felt more than twice as long.

Staged in a three-quarter formation, around a minimal set consisting of a large metallic table, a mirror, a lamp and some chairs (as designed by artistic director John Doyle), the performance begins with Morrison casually tuning various instruments for what feels like an eternity. Eventually Berry shows up and takes the guise of Frankenstein’s creature. As opposed to the novel, which slowly leads up to creature’s birth, Bernays begins with it coming to life. (Coincidentally, Nick Dear did the same thing in his adaptation for the National Theatre.) What follows is a lengthy period of wordless movement and physical improvisation in which the creature discovers its five senses and world. Berry also learns how to speak by interacting with audience members.

Eventually, we move to the gentle scene where the creature gains the friendship of an elderly, blind, kind man (Morrison) before proceeding on a killing spree and hunting down the family of his creator. As it moves along, Berry (clad in a tunic, overcoat and cap) starts to portray other characters, which makes it increasingly unclear who she is playing and what is going on at any given time. In between transitioning from a sense of childlike wonder and delight to bitterness and ferocity, Berry recites lengthy passages of prose.  

The CSC Frankenstein is not terrible. Rather, it is undeveloped and underproduced. It is the equivalent of a small-scale performance project that one might find at an acting class or as a selection at the Fringe Festival. One could try to defend it as a testament to the power of direct and unvarnished storytelling, but it does not deserve to be a mainstage offering by a well-established Off-Broadway company such as CSC. As it happens, in just two months, CSC will be presenting a starry revival of Sondheim’s Assassins, which ought to help wipe away the memory of dozing off through Frankenstein.

 


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