When she penned “Frankenstein” in 1818, Mary Shelley created a monster that has, in the popular imagination, taken on a life of its own and continues to be a viable facet of our cultural pantheon. Over the years there have been so many variations, so much playing around with the Frankenstein story, so much fruitful development of the iconic tale that the beginnings have been somewhat obscured. The monster has become standardized into the green-skinned, flat-headed, heavily-stitched, big-booted, inarticulate brute whose name is conflated with that of its creator. This cartoonish version of the monster has become so prevalent that it feels exotic to get back to basics and to revisit Shelley’s original tale.
The New Muses Theatre Company’s production of “Frankenstein” hews closely to the Shelley original, including the author’s device of using multiple narrators that disclose the story through letters, second hand accounts and direct action. Shelley’s novel was adapted for stage by Niclas Olson, the founder and managing artistic director of New Muses. Olson is also the director and plays the role of Victor Frankenstein, the unbounded scientist who seeks after the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of the secret of life.
At its core, the tale explores the bond between the creator and his creature. (What has remained steadfast through all the subsequent variations and developments of the story is the pairing of maker and monster. Whenever the lurching, socially awkward creature appears, his mad scientist creator is somewhere in the background.) In the Shelley story, Frankenstein is driven by a desire to win immortality for himself by reanimating dead material. When he finds success, however, Frankenstein is immediately horrified by the hideous thing that he has made. The creature is repelled by its creator and goes off on its own. It learns language and reading, but is continually repulsed by people with whom it desires companionship. The creature bargains with Frankenstein to have a custom-made bride for himself. Frankenstein reneges on the deal and the creature takes revenge in the destruction of Frankenstein’s loved ones and the exhaustion to death of Frankenstein himself.
In tampering with the stuff of Life, Frankenstein tampers with his own life. In lacking the wisdom to deal justly with the life that he created, he sets into motion a chain of events that wreck his own life.
The New Muses production gets deep into the psychological interplay between creator and creature. “Life is dear to me and I will defend it,” the creature says to Frankenstein when they meet for the first time since the newly made monster ran away. “Remember that I am your creature,” says the monster, “I ought to be your Adam but I am rather the fallen angel.”
The interplay between Frankenstein and his wayward, unwanted progeny gives heft to the story. It is fodder for further reflection long after one has exited the theater and gone off to wet the whistle in an intoxicating beverage.
The New Muses presentation of this archetypal drama is a brilliant construction of theatrical art. The spare cast of four is uniformly impeccable. Olson is great as Victor Frankenstein, forced to portray a wide emotional range: from the thrill of scientific achievement, to repulsion and aggressive hatred towards his creation. He also is the tender-hearted son of gentle parents and the lover of the very sweet and loving Elizabeth (played by Jenna McRill.)
Ben Stahl is commanding as the creature. Shelley’s version of the creature is intelligent, articulate and self-aware. Stahl imbues the complex role with a sensitive vitality. The creature is at times gentle, as when it seeks human companionship. But the creature also can be filled with rage and demand what it regards as its due. “You are my creator, but I am your master!” the creature roars at Frankenstein.
The aforementioned McRill is spellbinding as she plays a multitude of characters. Her main role is that of Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s betrothed. She also plays the sister of an explorer, the daughter of an exiled French aristocrat, a village woman, Frankenstein’s mother, a surly Irishwoman and a young woman falsely accused and hanged for the murder of Frankenstein’s little brother.
Nick Clawson likewise fills out a multitude of roles, chiefly those of Henry Clerval, Frankenstein’s best friend and Captain Walton, to whom Frankenstein recounts his tale.
Sound effects, lighting design (by Alexander Bevier and Bethany Bevier) and set design are some of the most elaborate seen in a New Muses Production. The stage is divided into three zones that are often separated by gauzy curtains. The reading of letters by the characters takes place downstage, nearest the audience. Narrations between characters take place midstage and much of the actual action takes place upstage.
The sound and the music are sumptuous, but the lighting effects are exquisite. There is everything from quiet candlelight to surreal strobe effects. For example, the moment of the creature’s coming to life is done under an intense, white strobe with figures writhing on the floor in their own private moments of agony.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece stands at the beginning of both science fiction and horror as literary genres. It is good to get back to this root stock with what is one of the finest New Muses theatrical productions that I’ve seen to date.
“Frankenstein” runs through Aug. 20 with showings at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Performances are held at Dukesbay Theatre at 508 S. 6th Ave. At 7 p.m. on Aug. 20, New Muses will present a staged reading of “9 Circles,” a psychological thriller based on the war crime trial of an American, Iraq War soldier. For further information visit NewMuses.com.