BWW Review: Languid Production of FRANKENSTEIN Will Have No One Clamoring, “It's Alive!”
The California Premiere of Nick Dear's adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN features a heartbreaking performance by Michael Manuel as a creature born innocent but ugly, taught to hate and rebel against humanity. Manuel carries the production on his hulking shoulders, which becomes crippling due to a confounding script and unusually lifeless direction from Los Angeles star director Michael Michetti.
The hand-made monster (Manuel), built and rejected by his genius creator, Victor Frankenstein (Kasey Mahaffy), rampages through the countryside of Switzerland after learning that his compassion and intellect will be spurned by everyone just because he is frightening looking. Though a kindly blind man (Harrison White) educates him in language and morality, the creature is cast off until he has no empathy for civilization. He returns to his creator and demands Victor grant him the one thing he lacks, companionship. He wants a bride.
Dear's script is problematic. Choosing the creature as the focal point is logical and gives the audience a chance to spend time with the creature bonding with the blindman, but the script robs the title character, the doctor, of a portrayal. The opening scene gives no indication that Victor created the monster or the mechanics of how, which is often the most exciting scenes in past adaptations, particularly the films. Victor stumbles upon the creature early and runs in terror, but there's no context for the audience to know their connection at this point. Had this been a movie, one would assume the projectionist skipped a reel.
Once the audience spends time with Victor, he is such an unformed character that the audience never really understands him. Michetti directs much of the play in a languid rhythm, as if this were a drawing room drama, not a horror show. The pacing never really picks up.
Thanks to a grant by the David Lee Foundation, Michetti and Movement Director Rhonda Kohl had spent a rigorous week training Manuel to ignore all his instincts about walking and enunciating his words and to learn everything fresh as an infant would. The time spent was well worth it, for the opening scenes with Manuel discovering his legs, his hair, and the animals surrounding him bonds the creature immediately with the audience. Throughout the show, Manuel infuses his role with a tragic desperation to learn and to love. It is clear the play stands behind the creature, judging him as heroic while the rest of humanity fails.
Often, the Doctor has been played two different ways, as a sympathetic gentleman over his head (as Colin Clive and Gene Wilder played the role in the 1931 Universal and Mel Brooks comedy, respectively) or as a psychopath who builds an id creature to do his evil bidding (as Peter Cushing played the role in the Hammer films). Mahaffy chooses an alternative way, as a clueless fop bent on histrionics. He's neither a protagonist nor an antagonist, his character is a nuisance. This unbalances the drama, which never recovers once the two characters play scenes together. White stands out as the naïve but loving teacher and Erika Soto is strong as the frustrated but empathetic Elizabeth, Victor's fiancée. Their scenes with Manuel are the best in the production.
François-Pierre Couture effectively uses an understated scenic design of descending wood panels and movable mirrors to abstractly form forests, shacks, and a laboratory. Jared A. Sayeg utilizes flashing stark white light to simulate the lighting that brings the creature to life. Shannon Hutchins' make-up gives Manuel texture without going grotesque. Garry Lennon's costumes are simple but time appropriate.
A misfire, Michetti's production of FRANKENSTEIN is slow and ponderous when it should be thrilling and hair-raising.
FRANKENSTEIN will be playing at A Noise Within (3352 E. Foothill Blvd. Pasadena, CA 91107) through September 8th. Tickets can be purchased at https://secure.anoisewithin.org/Online/default.asp