BWW Reviews: Monsters Among Us at Mixed Magic Theatre's FRANKENSTEIN
There is a very famous episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone called "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street." The episode dramatizes the concepts of how and why people might turn into monsters. It demands that the viewer ask "who are the real monsters?" and "is it us?" These sorts of questions about monsters and how they are created have been around for many years. One of the most famous, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, is now receiving a new and fascinating adaptation at Mixed Magic Theatre.
Shelley's story is well-known and has been adapted many times over, in many different forms. It is the famous tale of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, which he creates but is unable to control. In Mixed Magic's adaption, we see how the monster, and that word is used liberally to describe him, wreaks havoc on Frankenstein, his family and his friends. We watch as the monster torments Victor, demanding that Victor treat him with something like fatherly compassion and also demanding the creation of a mate, something Victor refused to do. As Victor relates his story, the monster's atrocities, and his own, are laid bare and offered up so the audience may decide who the real monster is.
As with any adaptation, the writer picks and chooses which parts of the source material to leave in and leave out. Here, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley has selected certain elements of the book to really bring to the forefront and focus on. His adaptation is one that shines the light squarely on the deeper questions, themes and ideas running through Shelley's novel. He is interested in bringing those questions to the surface and making sure the audience not only hears them, but tries to answer them as well.
Pitts-Wiley's version of Shakespeare isn't interested in scares or thrills, the horror that can be found in Shelley's novel. This version is almost bloodless, very light on the violence. It's not scary in the least and is, for the most part, family-friendly. It also features a monster who is created in an unique and fascinating way, with three different actors playing the part. Pitts-Wiley has divided the monster into three characters who move, speak and act as one, while embodying three different sides of the creature, the aggression, the intellect and the gentle innocence. This convention works wonderfully and allows Pitts-Wiley to give us a deeper and more interesting exploration of Frankenstein's monster than other versions might allow.
Another strength of Pitts-Wiley's version here is that he is skillful at crafting a story and allowing his characters to be storytellers. His Victor Frankenstein relates the story of his life to a captain aboard a ship which has saved him. As he tell his tale, he is telling it to the audience as well, bringing them into the story as we watch the characters in the play bring the story to life. The way Victor tells the story also allows for a number of interesting questions to arise, such as whether or not this whole thing is only in his head to whether the creature really existed at all. Because we see it only from Victor's point of view, we can never really know what is real and what is his imagination or faulty memory.
The strengths in Pitts-Wiley's script make the few faults more glaring. For example, there's a strange and out-of-place scene at the end of Act One where three characters act out an extended scene from a Shakespearean play with each other. The whole thing seems unnecessary and really fails as a dramatic ending to the play's first half. Similarly, there's an even more awkward and strange scene towards the play's end. It seems to exist only to lecture the audience about monsters and make sure they get the point of the play. While the scene really falls flat, it seems a storyteller as talented as Pitts-Wiley could have found a better way to get his point across, potentially through the actions and words of his characters.
Creating this unique version of Frankenstein along with Pitts-Wiley and the rest of his team is director MJ Daly. Daly is as good a storyteller as Pitts-Wiley and they do an excellent job crafting and delivering their shared vision. They seem to have set out to create a Frankenstein that brings contemporary themes to the forefront and they succeed at that. There are moments that ask questions of racism and race relations. Other moments highlight themes of feminism and gender equality. While this comes in part from Pitts-Wiley's writing, it also comes from Daly's staging of the play, how she directs her actors to behave and respond.
One choice that Daly and the creative team have made doesn't succeed so well, and that is having the three actors playing the monster walk on stilts. While it's dramatically interesting to have the actors be physically imposing and larger than life, the stilts are cumbersome, noisy and distracting, giving the audience something to focus on that they shouldn't be. It might have been better to simply have the three actors costumed in a certain way to make them unique or perhaps have them physically connected or tied together, in some way that is unobtrusive.
Those three actors given this unique role are Brayam Renovales as Alpha (the agreession), David Valentine as Beta (the logic/intellect) and Charlie Santos as Gamma (the innocence). All three of them are wonderfully fun to watch. They do an excellent job of creating the monster's unique personalities, each one just different enough to be unique and identifiable. The three actors also work well as a unit, perfectly talking, moving and responding together, whether it's talking in unison or simply reacting together as one. Their performance, with some help from Pitts-Wiley and Daly, makes something that could be messy and difficult to follow (three actors playing one character at the same time) into something clearly and powerfully formed and created.
As the creator of this particular monster, Rudy Cabrera is a fabulous Victor Frankenstein. He is on stage almost the entire show and must carry much of it on his shoulders, which he does capably. Cabrera is a charismatic actor with stage presence to spare. He is also able to truthfully create the emotional turmoil of Victor as he takes this journey from power and pride to the depths of despair. In Cabrera's talented hands, this is a Victor who is suffering from the evil he has created and who is forced to face the question of whether or not he is the real monster.
Anad Thomas appears as Captain Walton, the captain of the ship to whom Victor tells the story. Thomas provides a moral compass and a conscience for Victor as she, and the audience, hear this terrible tale. Meg Taylor-Roth is equally excellent as Elizabeth, the woman at Victor's side and his eventual doomed wife. In this version, Elizabeth is front and center at times, speaking for the entire female gender, and Taylor-Roth handles those powerful moments perfectly. The rest of the ensemble, Mike Riley, Kim Xavier, James Ernest and Jeannie Mae Carson also do a fine job in a number of roles.
With this adptatin, Pitts-Wiley, Daly and their team have created an interesting hybrid. Some versions of the story go for the scares and the terror, but can wind up dull. Other versions can try to ask the big questions but end up bloodless and lifeless. This version, though, finds a balance, including just enough of the necessary violence to keep the fear and terror of the monster intact. At the same time, the big, philosophical questions are delivered in a way that makes them understandable to the audience. And that is largely accomplished through the unique and very effective tool of three actors playing Frankenstein's monster.
Like that old Twilight Zone episode, this adaptation forces us to ask, "Who are the real monsters?" and to further ask "How are the monsters of today created?" These are important, essential questions, especially since we seem to be surrounded by more and more monsters every day. In the hands of Mixed Magic, the story of Frankenstein forces us to examine those questions and deal with the monsters that we, ourselves, may have created.
Performances of Frankenstein run through May 31st at Mixed Magic Theare, located at 560 Mineral Springs Road in Pawtucket, RI. Show times are 7:30pm on Friday and Saturday and 3:00pm on Sunday. All Tickets $15. Call 401-305-7333 or visit www.mmtri.com for tickets and information.
Pictured: (Back, L to R): David Valentin, Charlie Santos, Brayam Renovales. (Front): Rudy Cabrera.