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BWW Review: Giles Davies Brings Local Theater Back to Life in Jobsite's FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS at the Jaeb

A One-Man Tour de Force!

BWW Review: Giles Davies Brings Local Theater Back to Life in Jobsite's FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS at the Jaeb

"It's been so long...so long...so long..." --David Bowie, "Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)"

238 days to be precise. That's how long it's been since I've seen and reviewed a show for Broadway World. On March 6th of this year, I saw Cabaret at RST and was scheduled to see several shows the following weekend. But by March 13th, everything shut down due to the pandemic, and we who live, breathe and bleed theatre found ourselves adrift. Yes, there have been some streaming events since summer, virtual performances, but they are not near the same thing (still, they're better than nothing). There have also been several outdoor events in our little theatre world that I have not been able to attend, so it's good to be back.

Last night, on the eve of All Hallow's Eve, I ventured to the Jaeb Theater at the Straz and witnessed the perfect Halloween concoction, care of Jobsite Theater and the great Giles Davies: FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.

Before the show, walking around the Straz Center, the area pocked with posters of shows that never got to see the light of day, I felt like I was in The Omega Man. It wasn't quite a ghost town, but there was an eerie feeling of being there, where so much magic occurred and will occur again, without the usual hustle bustle of theatre-goers. Still, there was a nice-sized audience in the Jaeb, socially distanced so everyone would feel comfortable and safe, and every single person there was transfixed on the stage.

David Bowie was right in the song I quoted at the start of this: It had been so long. Actually, it had been too long since I sat with an audience in the dark and was affected and emotionally devastated by a single performance. I needed this; we needed this; and if you are reading this, I know that you need this right now too.

The one-man show, FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (by Jim Helsinger), keeps quite close to the Mary Shelley novel, from the opening missives of Captain Robert Walton, to the story of Victor von Frankenstein and the creation of his "monster." We've seen the story of Frankenstein so many times that I don't need to retell the plot. We know the movie monsters that haunt our nightmares, from Boris Karloff's iconic figure to Glenn Strange, Robert DeNiro and of course Peter Boyle's hilarious takedown in Mel Brooks' famous spoof. But the story and characters seem new in the hands of Giles Davies (and with help from director, Paul Potenza).

Seeing this, I felt the story of Frankenstein moved away from the horror genre and steered closer to classic science fiction mixed with tragedy. I found it heartbreaking more than scary; a tear-inducing journey more than a scream-your-voice-hoarse thrill ride. But that's not to say that it's not thrilling. It's more than that, deeper. I felt the pain of the monster, who did not ask to be born. His fate is a mirror of every man's fate, and Dr. Frankenstein's remorse at his deadly mistake is more than understandable. He played God and lost.

Giles Davies has been a godsend to our area over the years. (There are only two other performers that I can think of who I have seen on the stage time and time again and who have not yet given a bad, average, misguided, forgettable, phony or phoned-in performance: Ned Averill-Snell and Emily Belvo.) How do I love Giles Davies' performances? Let me count the ways. In 2011's A Midsummer Night's Dream at freeFall, his Puck blew me away; it's like he came from another planet--a reptilian alien that could climb the walls if it wanted, the most physical Puck I have ever experienced. His sinister turns in the past decade--as Beatty in Fahrenheit 451 and Iago in Othello, where his smile and likability chilled me--were outstanding. His other Shakespeare work--from the Gravedigger in Hamlet to his turn as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and, earlier this year (seems like eons), Bottom in Jobsite's version of Midsummer Night's Dream--are some of the most memorable creations of recent times. And don't get me started on his brilliant work in Constellations. Although he was quite fine in The Thanksgiving Play last year (seems like a century ago), it's the only work that didn't showcase his greatest strengths as an actor--his sheer physicality and THAT VOICE.

But here, it's all Davies, all the time. He portrays numerous characters, each one different in physical nature and voice, and it's breathtaking to behold. He's so specific an actor, so laser-pointed in his focus, that although he is alone onstage, we swear there are characters listening to him there. We can visualize different people even though there is no make-up change and only a slight wardrobe swap of coats. This is the ultimate Giles Davies experience (and yes, The Giles Davies Experience sounds like the name of a Sixties psychedelic group).

Act 1 should be called "The Creation," and Act 2 is "The Monster." As good as Davies is at the start, his ugly Monster in Act 2 is a thing of beauty. At first I could have sworn there was some facial re-construction or heavy make-up for his affected face, but it was Davies contorting himself, especially twisting the lips. The audience listened, totally enraptured. Davies' "monster" was like a knowing child, a sad sack overgrown infant turned angry beast. Imagine Quasimodo with a large helping of John Merrick (The Elephant Man), and you get an idea of what's in store. Although the word "tour de force" gets thrown around way too often, it more than applies. That said, "tour de force" doesn't even sound strong enough for what Davies accomplishes here.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS is more than just a horror story; it's a heartbreaking account of man's misguidance when he tries to outdo God, striving for immortality and faltering in the most horrific way. His creation, his failure, isn't a monster as much as a victim. And our hearts break for the creature at every turn.

Davies is aided by sensational lighting by Jo Averill-Snell, where the light changes occur with the unveiling of a character, an altering of mood, or pure dramatic effect. It perfectly showcases Davies without overwhelming him (even the red fiery lighting effects near the end hit just the right note). Brian Smallheer's and Rebekah Lazardis' minimal set gives Davies the proper playground to roam in. Katrina Stevenson's costume for the various characters are just right for the time period (so much is told with the addition or removal of a single piece of clothing). And the sound effects and music were well-used and effective, although no sound designer is mentioned in the online program.

I felt extremely safe at the Jaeb, with each table socially distanced, everyone in masks, a fever check at the entrance, a full Covid-19 questionnaire, a bottle of 80% alcohol hand sanitizer on the table, and the always helpful Straz staff at your service. Theatre in particular has been hit so hard by the pandemic--where National Tours and Broadway shows won't resume until after summer 2021 and massive lay-offs of live performers at Disney World and cruise lines devastated headlines this week. Good as this show is and great as Giles Davies is, FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS does not mean that professional theatre is fully alive right now in our area. But it's a start.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS starring Giles Davies plays at the Jaeb Theater in the Straz Center this weekend (October 31st at 7:30; November 1st at 4:00) and on November 10th.


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