By Sarah Downs
We’ve all heard of Frankenstein — you know — big guy, green skin, neck bolts. Indeed, it is almost a rite of passage to see a Frankenstein film at some point, whether it be of the ‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ or ‘Put. The Candle. Back.’ variety. As written, however, the original novel actually involves more nuance and tragedy. It is a tale of innocence, beauty, loathing and fear. So much lies behind the creation of this novel; a goldmine of metaphor exists within it, but you wouldn’t know that from the uneven, unfocused, undefined creature that is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is not to say that Eve Wolf has created a monster; it’s just that she has not created a coherent evening of theater.
In seven (SEVEN) pages of literary exegesis in the program, Musicologist James Melo explains that the goal of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is to combine music, poetry and excerpts from letters and diaries to shed light on Mary Shelley’s state of mind when she wrote her famous novel. Given that she suffered several miscarriages and the loss of three children to fatal illness, Shelley was primed to understand the depths of misery and alienation. Add to that a father who told her to buck up and stop blubbering about those dead kids and your stomach sinks. Who’s the monster here? According to the liner notes Shelley’s father actually thought his daughter was brilliant, but you wouldn’t know that from this script. Similarly, the notes also stress the importance of the novel’s full name: Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus, which, again, the script promptly proceeds to ignore.
Director Sanders has interspersed the action with period music performed by three instrumentalists, oboist Kemp Jernigan, harpsichordist Parker Ramsay and the exceptional pianist Steven Lin, whose brilliant playing inspired the audience at one point to applaud spontaneously mid-scene, and a singer, Krysty Swann. Swann possesses a rich voice which she uses effectively, despite being forced to wander the small stage in a series of increasingly unattractive gowns, with leaves in her hair. It’s Ariadne auf Naxos meets Norma without the Druids. The media collage also includes compelling interpretive dance choreographed and performed by Robert Fairchild.
Unfortunately, the actors suffer under the burden of the show’s overreach. The pieces just don’t come together as they should. Mia Vallet is woefully miscast in the central role of Mary Shelley. Not only is her modern tone of voice and cadence completely wrong, her acting lacks vigor. Paul Wesley fares somewhat better as her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Note: Director Donald T. Sanders needs to clarify with the actors the pronunciations of ‘portmanteau,’ ‘Werther’ and ‘solipsism.’) Rocco Sisto in the thankless role of ‘old man in the diorama’ and Shelley’s meannie of a father has much to offer, but which he has to stuff into his few snippets of stage time.
On the other hand, the set, designed by costumer Vanessa James, has moments of true beauty, especially in the mesmerizing video projections by David Bengali which wash over the set in an evocation of nature, transforming every surface with flickering light. Film clips and dancing shadows, along with dramatic lighting by Beverly Emmons layer haunting visual upon haunting visual. It is here, as well as in Fairchild’s emotional, committed performance, that we feel the true heart of the novel. Indeed, absent Fairchild’s dancing, the video projections and the instrumentals, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have little emotional impact. How ironic that the text is most successfully conveyed via wordless media.
Within its detailed explanation of what we were intended to see onstage, the program includes a discussion about whether Mary Shelley or her know-it-all husband who insisted on adding his pretentious two cents to the writing is the true author of this novel, a discussion which would never take place if he had been author and she editor. Spoiler alert: the girl wrote it. Men telling women what to do no matter what the circumstance, and being given credit for their work; gee where have we heard that before. Mary Shelley deserves a big #metoo and a star on the literary walk of fame for her courage alone, and her perseverance. She endured what very few could have endured, and managed to write a classic story that will never lose its relevance. Her Frankenstein is no freak; it is a masterpiece. Too bad this play is not.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, presented by Ensemble for the Romantic Century (Eve Wolf, Executive Artistic Director); directed by Donald T. Sanders; sets and costumes by Vanessa James; lighting by Beverly Emmons; projections by David Bengali; sound design by Bill Toles; starring Robert Fairchild, Avey Noble, Krysty Swann, Mia Vallet, Peyton Lusk, Rocco Sisto, Shiv Ajay Pancholi-Parekh, and Paul Wesley. December 21, 2017 through January 7, 2018, at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). Run time 1 hour 40 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.