September 27, 2002

Frankenstein Fever

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There was no laboratory, no electrical currents, and certainly no flat-headed monster in the Kitchen Theatre tonight. Yet even without such ingredients, tonight’s performance struck life into the very themes that are so often left dormant in depictions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Writer and Director, Rachel Lampert honors Shelley with a clever and relevant contemporary script that highlights the factors which give Frankenstein such longevity.

The play sets a modern-day Mary and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley in New York City as they fill the role of Robert Walton, the English explorer to whom Victor Frankenstein tells his life story in the novel.

Frankenstein, or Victor as he is referred to in this play, is neatly inserted as a street wanderer with many of the crazy characteristics of the original fanatical scientist.

The acting is as superb as the script they are working from. The three-person cast of Marcy Finestone, Karl Gregory, and Bill Gorman display tremendous versatility. Their precise transformations of delivery and manner when changing character allow the potentially complicated switches in time and location to be easily recognized.

Finestone plays a perfectly non-melodramatic Mary Shelley. Her adaptation of a nineteenth century upper-class lady to a strong, present-day woman seems effortless. The same assertiveness that steered Shelley through the death of her mother, her husband later on, and into a career of writing is mirrored in Finestone’s pant-wearing portrayal.

Karl Gregory’s responsibility as the key dual-role actor is adopted with a maturity beyond his years. An interesting parallel is drawn between his role as the present day Percy Byshee Shelley and his role as Frankenstein’s Monster.

Both as Percy and the Monster, a search for identity is evident. Gregory’s Percy is constantly referred to as a romantic (a label he is uncomfortable with) and his uncertainty of his real parents is highlighted. Likewise, Gregory’s Monster (in which the actor is at his best) is one reminiscent of the novel, possessing real emotions and yearning for belonging in the human world — about as far from the bolt-necked Boris Karloff as possible.

Completing the trio, Bill Gorman selflessly makes the performance an ensemble one, working perfectly with actors much his junior. Visually, his character Victor appears both the New York City vagrant and the nineteenth century mad scientist.

Gorman provides the critical humor in the piece, instigating laughs at all the right moments. But it is his alternating self conflict as the protagonist (a scientist dedicated to progress in understanding life) and the antagonist (a “father” who abandons his “child”) that makes his acting most admirable.

Despite the tremendous talent on-stage, the show’s biggest achievement is Rachel Lampert’s reworking of a much mishandled classic.

It is clear where Lampert is most successful in her function as a playwright. At the conclusion of the recitals of both Frankenstein’s and his monster’s life stories, the play ends with Shelley writing aloud, “Chapter One.” This underlines one of the most common themes of the novel: the importance for stories to be retold.

The Frankenstein story has been retold in numerous ways for almost two centuries. With that in mind, it is undoubtedly derived that the novel’s key issues of “playing God,” and nature versus nurture, are as prominent today as they were at the time of the story’s conception.

In fact, this contemporary relevance may indeed be cleverly and directly implicit in Lampert’s text. Early in the first act Victor states, “I am very much of this time,” when telling his story.

It is perhaps fair to say that Lampert drops another moment of literal commentary into the play. In the second act the monster proclaims to his creator, “Yes, the wretched monster, empathy! Not as portrayed in popular culture.” A well orchestrated jab at Lampert’s not so accurate predecessors? Maybe, but dead on if you ask me.

At the very least, tonight’s play is a top quality acting showcase. But ultimately, this refreshing interpretation is an example of how the best art will offer itself to reinvention. And when handled as well as this, we have the added benefit of being able to interpret the social commentary that has always been in Shelley’s text, but rarely tapped.

Archived article by Tom Britton