BWW Review: CREATURE: A FRANKENSTEIN PUPPET ADAPTATION at Suspend
Photo: Mary Shelley Electric Company
Creature: A Puppet Frankenstein Adaptation
Created by Deva North & Zach Bramel
Puppets by Deva North
Written & Conceived by Zach Bramel
Directed by Jon Becraft
Music by Axel Cooper, & performed by Tim Barnes, Axel Cooper, Josh Johnson & Shutaro Noguchi
Projection by Tim Furnish
This review includes a longer than usual list of credits in the header, and that may point to a deficiency in the posting of other reviews, but the exception made here is to indicate the particularly balanced collaboration among the team members.
Zach Bramel sort of stands out for being one of the two people who conceived the project, the writer, and the performer of the title character, but Deva North was also there from the beginning, and designed and built the puppets, which is crucial. Tim Furnish's projections play an essential role in the overall impact, and one cannot even begin to imagine this show without the highly individual music that nails a very specific and pervasive tone.
All of which is to emphasize that the success of Creature is held in so many hands with an unusual degree of equanimity. It feels less like an adaptation of Mary Shelley and more like a reinvention of the central idea of the creature born of man's hubris. Frankenstein is the name of the bent scientist who deigns to play God, but in the several lifetimes since its publication, or more precisely, since the release of the 1931 James Whale film and Boris Karloff's iconic performance as the creature, it has become the name of the monster. The square head with bolts in its neck has become ubiquitous on Halloween paraphernalia and children's breakfast cereal to the point of becoming warm and fuzzy. It begs for reinvention.
This version, executed under the amusing label, "A Mary Shelley Electric Company Production", certainly does that. It uses Shelley herself as a character and follows a fairly linear narrative that is recognizable enough, but it relies more on action and visual design to tell its story. The realization of the Creature, played by Bramel, is vivid and terrible, an asymmetrical, misshaped hulk that comes to life in a brilliant bit of movement that is startling for how simply it takes advantage of the loose-limbed construction. It requires two operators (Amy Davis was Bramel's #2), each stepping in harmony to create the illusion of tragic disharmony.
The story follows the Creature's exploration of the world, depicting him as a gruesome new life form full of innocence yet also capable of great, sudden rage. It fits our expectation of the character, but the script gives the cliché a fresh spin, playing the tropes out in unexpected ways. There is also an intriguing ambiguity to the Creature's gender identity. The brother and sister that befriend it use female pronouns, while the Creature uses "they" in referring to itself. That androgyny is perhaps the most dramatic departure from the tradition, but it seems far from a sop to current social change and is introduced so naturally that it feels right. The Creature is incomplete, a shambling, barely human mass of flesh, bone, and untempered emotion, so it makes sense that the particulars of gender identification might be blurred or entirely absent.
There is a good deal of moving about of set pieces and screens, but the projections and music are powerful elements and easily cover these moments. Tim Furnish's projected imagery (Suki Anderson is credited with Graphic Design) ranges from swirling star fields to twee English cottage, and a fascinating object that conjured both a skeletal structure and the electric coils we can remember from the 1931 movie. There is also a lot of Tesla influenced electrical current depicted, and all of it seems so deeply connected to the music composed by Axel Cooper that it would not be farfetched to imagine them as a club performance standing apart from the stage narrative. Such elements are so often accessory and supportive, but the degree of synergy throughout this production is stunning.
My one caveat is that the sound muddied Cooper's singing so that most of the lyrics were indecipherable. Otherwise, the balance between his guitar, Tim Barnes' percussion, Josh Johnson's bass & xylophone, and Shutaro Noguchi's keyboards seemed pretty tight.
It is difficult to gauge the quality of performance from the human cast in terms of acting, but I am not certain there is much experience, aside from Bramel, as puppeteers. I found their vocalizations and movements expressive on target, and it is curious to contemplate the relationship between the more conventional theatrical experience of Katherine Martin, Meghan Logue, and Amy Davis and the work they are doing here. Richard Batts' program bio lists him as a "time traveling multidimensional multimedia visual artist", and his work as one of the puppeteers shows he feels right at home in this company.
For people who like easy categorization, Creature will prove confounding. Such interdisciplinary constructions are not new, so Avant-garde or experimental seem awkward and limiting descriptions. Shelley's remonstrations aside, it is a superb example of what is possible when we worry less about labeling and just concentrate on creation. Creature is beautiful, sublime, challenging, exhilarating, and exactly the kind of risk-taking theatre we need to encourage in Louisville.
Creature: A Puppet Frankenstein Adaptation
Rock & Roll puppetry for adults & brave children. (Suggested for ages 8 & up.)
Advanced tickets are recommended & available here for $18 / $15 matinee: https://creaturepuppetshow2018.brownpapertickets.com.
November 2, 3, 9, & 10 @ 7pm & 9pm
November 10 @ 4pm
Pre-shows by Suspend, a half-hour before each show
A Mary Shelley Electric Company Production
721 East Washington Street
Louisville, KY 40202