BWW Reviews: MONSTER Haunts the BU Theatre
Adapted by Neal Bell from the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Directed by Jim Petosa; Scenic Designer, Martin Gjoni; Costume Designer, Adrienne Carlile; Lighting Designer, Chris Brusberg; Sound Designer, Steve Dee; Technical Director, Kyle Moore; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle; Production Manager, Andrew Brown
CAST: Tim Spears (Walton, Clerval), Stephen Elrod (Forster, Father), Michael Kaye (Victor), Cloteal L. Horne (Mother, Justine), Britian Seibert (Elizabeth), Jake McLean (Cat, William), John Zdrojeski (Creature)
Performances through February 25 by Boston Center for American Performance at BU Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bu.edu/cfa/bcap
The atmospheric conditions in the BU Theatre Lane-Comley Studio 210 are just right for Obie Award-winning playwright Neal Bell's unsettling stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, presented by the Boston Center for American Performance. The sight and smell of smoke, the surrounding walls draped in sheets of white fabric, and a brew of eerie sounds and lights combine to set the mood for Monster, a rendering of the oft-told tale that is not likely to be confused with earlier film or theatrical versions. Bell's edition will not evoke images of Boris Karloff or Mel Brooks, but it elevates the underlying themes of one man's attempt to play God and discover a way to defeat death to an inescapable level of consciousness.
Newly-minted Artistic Director of New Repertory Theatre and BCAP Artistic Director Jim Petosa helms this production, performed by a mix of faculty and student actors from Boston University's College of Fine Arts School of Theatre. The creative design team is made up of students and alumni, as well. Their contribution to the impact of Monster cannot be overstated; Mother Nature virtually becomes a twelfth character in the play, thanks to Lighting Designer Chris Brusberg and Sound Designer Steve Dee. Bell posits that electricity from a lightning bolt is the force that can raise the dead, so they manufacture a couple of powerful storms that are vital to Dr. Frankenstein's work.
Monster takes place in the early 1800s in Europe and somewhere in the Arctic Ocean. In addition to the different locales, there are time shifts that show Frankenstein in boyhood and young adulthood, laying the foundation for his research and ultimate creation. The play begins with a group of explorers in the Arctic trying to outrun the approaching ice that may entrap their ship before they discover a route to the North Pole. Instead, they find a man, who may or may not be mad, wandering in the wilderness in search of a creature who is out to destroy him. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Michael Kaye) tells his story to the ship's captain (Tim Spears) and, via flashbacks, we learn together how he ended up in the frozen north. The non-linear telling of the story creates some confusion and I heard more than one person question the setting of part of the play in the Arctic.
Victor is a tormented character who fears life and loving because he fears dying. He dedicates his research to finding a way to defeat death by creating life, but he cannot predict what that will unleash. He is ill-equipped to be the father to the monstrous child (John Zdrojeski) born of his experiments, and so abandons him in the woods with the hope that he will meet his demise. However, Creature turns out to be practically indestructible and haunts Frankenstein, demanding that his creator accept responsibility for him or pay dearly in human cost. In a strange role reversal, Creature becomes the hunter, rather than the hunted; as if the One-armed Man had gone after Dr. Richard Kimball in The Fugitive. In any case, Victor finds that playing God is highly overrated.
Four of the seven cast members capably meet the challenge of playing dual roles and we are never at a loss to know which of the characters is being portrayed. Although Adrienne Carlile's 19th century-style costumes help to draw the distinction, the actors adopt mannerisms and adapt body language to play each role differently. Jake McLean behaves boyishly as Frankenstein's ill-fated younger brother William, but also displays spot on animal instincts in his scene as the family cat. Cloteal L. Horne is dignified and buttoned up as Mother, but relaxes into the loose limbed and feisty maid Justine. In addition to his stint as the ship's captain, Spears plays Victor's needy close friend Clerval, and Stephen Elrod doubles as the excitable First Mate and Father, a man of his time with a stiff upper lip.
Britian Seibert, a senior Theatre Arts major, gives a mature performance as Victor's love interest Elizabeth, who struggles to compete with his other love, the laboratory. This requires Seibert to be both strong and vulnerable as Elizabeth wants to be with him, but needs to hold firm to some boundaries. In spite of a gap in their ages, the connection between the lovely Seibert and the brooding Kaye overcomes the "ick" factor. Kaye does most of the heavy lifting in this play and occasionally succumbs to Bell's melodrama, but he certainly conveys Victor's anguish and guilt. His early scenes with Zdrojeski are tender, while the latter ones are wrought with tension as they play their high stakes mind games.
The arc for Zdrojeski's character is arduous, first appearing as a lifeless form swathed in something like a body bag. When he emerges, the only sounds he makes are yelps and grunts. Eventually he is able to speak primitively and scramble around like an animal. He reappears after surviving on his own in the wild, walking tall and speaking like an English gentleman. (Did he meet Henry Higgins in the woods, I wonder?) Despite a litany of horrible acts, Zdrojeski is able to elicit sympathy for Creature, letting us see the pain in those dark, monstrous eyes.
Petosa and company have crafted a solid production of Monster. The sights, sounds, and smells in the intimate Studio 210 lend it a greater degree of theatricality than is inherent in Bell's flawed play. While he makes his point about having responsibility for what we create, I think some of us got lost in the wilderness.