At the Remy Bumppo Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” has not gone unnoticed by Chicago theaters. Thus far three major local theaters have booked adaptations of the novel, each with its own slant on the work, and another is scheduled for next year.
The Remy Bumppo Theater has selected the 2011 version created by Nick Dear for the National Theater in England. This version, inspired by the original novel, gives us a (or creature created from human body parts by the scientist Victor Frankenstein. The creature is not given a name in the novel, an insult that galls the creature as he tries to live like a human being and not a freak.
At Remy Bumppo, the opening scenes of “Frankenstein” are stunners. We first see a naked figure alone on the garishly lit stage, enclosed within a transparent cloth cocoon, struggling to free itself in a grotesque one-person ballet. That figure turns out to be the creature trying to escape from the womb sac. He tumbles out, thrashing around the stage, grunting in confusion. We learn later that Victor Frankenstein had abandoned his creation in disgust and the creature is left alone, physically repulsive and desperate to make his way in a world he never asked to be born into.
The creature finally stumbles upon a blind old man living alone in a forest. The man, unaware of the creature’s ugliness, becomes his mentor. The creature turns out to be a quick study and within a short time he is talking and writing fluently and reciting the poetry of John Milton. Yet the creature is the subject of fear and loathing among the ignorant peasants of the area.
The creature, maddened by society’s hostility, turns vengeful. He starts killing people and eventually meets up with Frankenstein himself, demanding the scientist create a mate who will share the creature’s life and soothe his terrible loneliness. Frankenstein does make a bride for the creature, a human figure as attractive, at least at Remy Bumppo, as the creature is physically frightening. The creature’s demand for a mate leads to a somber ending, like the novel, with the two figures facing each other, bonded in mutual hatred, on a polar ice field.
The Nick Dear adaptation is essentially a two-person play with the balance tipped strongly toward the creature. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t enter the play until about a third of the way through the 1 hour and 45 minute intermissionless production. Until then, we watch the creature grow from an inarticulate subhuman into an individual of intelligence and deep feeling. Frankenstein hadn’t counted on his creation carrying strong feelings, the scientist himself being a self absorbed megalomaniac. It was his one major error and it took severe toll.
The Remy Bumppo staging follows the National Theater in having the two actors in the key roles exchange characters from performance to performance. On opening night Nick Sandys played the creature and Greg Matthew Anderson played Frankenstein. The audience was urged to see the show twice, with the promise they would see “Frankenstein” as virtually two separate plays. The personality of the creature dominates the play and Sandys is riveting in his initial confusion leading to yearning and resentment and finally revenge. Anderson could follow the same trajectory and still create a radically different show—two performance viewpoints reshaping the evening in each actor’s theatrical and dramatic image.
The other characters are vastly overshadowed in impact by the creator and his maker, but given a chance the supporting actors do well. Frank Nall injects welcome realism into the frequently overwrought tone of the action. He plays both the wise blind man and Victor Frankenstein’s father with understatement and sensitivity. Eliza Stoughton enhances the two-dimensional character of Victor’s fiancé and wife into a young woman vainly trying to make sense of the swirling melodrama that surrounds her man. Other highly credible performances belong to Claire Alpern, Steve Lords, Zachary Scott Fewkes, and Jose Nateras. Fewkes plays Frankenstein’s young brother with a lot professionalism for a 7th grade student from Lake Zurich.
Director Ian Frank keeps the tension taut but doesn’t let the emotions go over the top. Frank recognizes that the play tries to say things more significant than its Gothic jolts. But he is dealing with a story from a Romantic early 19th century sensibility that may invite condescension from today’s audiences. Yet for those 105 minutes of playing time the audience takes the play seriously, a compliment to the man at the directorial controls.
The set consists primarily of Joe Schermoly’s three step minimalist box but there is enough visual variety from Mike Durst’s evocative lighting to keep the eye engaged. Kristy Leigh Hall’s costumes position the story securely at the time Mary Shelley was writing her novel. hall also designed the graphic and intricate makeup, with its maze of stitch patterns that instantly establishes the creature’s grotesque physical appearance. The makeup reportedly takes hours to apply but its impact is worth the time and effort. Christopher Kriz contributed the sound design and original music.
Ever since the famous 1931 Boris Karlov movie, “Frankenstein” has been considered a horror story in the public imagination. But there are no real horror moments in the play, though suspense and tension erupt throughout the evening. Viewers interested in the plot’s more philosophical overtones are referred to the program note for its comments on the historical and social ramifications of the novel. What earns the production its “should see” recommendation is Sandys’s virtuoso performance as the anguished and resentful creature, a better man, so to speak, than most of the normal characters in the play.
The story is a cautionary tale that warns against overbearing individuals trying to play god with human lives. The narrative also suggests that the human race could stand a large dose of understanding and compassion for the outsider instead of closing ranks against anyone who is perceived to be different. But that’s for after-theater conversation. The Remy Bumppo contribution to the “Frankenstein” bicentennial is admirable in the force of the Sandys performance, which may be matched when Anderson takes his turn. Right now the story sags when the creature isn’t active on stage, but when he is, viewers get a satisfyingly large bang for their buck.
The show gets a rating of
“Frankenstein” runs through November 17 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $37.50 to $62.75. Call 773 975 8150 or visit www.RemyBumppo.org.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. October 2018
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