By Neal Bell.
Directed by Rob West
Theatre Schmeater
1500 Summit Avenue, Seattle WA 98122 / (206) 324-5801

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

The Frankenstein legend, originating in the troubled Gothic dreams of Mary Shelley, has become a cultural archetype, adapted endlessly through the decades, with each generation leaving its own imprint. This adaptation moves far, far away from the triviality of Halloween monster masks in order to explore something far more compelling. The "monster" at loose here is just as much about profound theological, moral and philosophical questions as it is about a misshapen, monstrous homunculus.

Those questions remain in the background of even the most trivial telling of the story, but in Neal Bell's fine and meticulously argued script they regain a depth and probity that recalls those other great 19th Century moralists, Melville and Conrad. That seriousness of purpose extends to this strong and convincing cast, and to the imaginative and respectful direction by Rob West. At 2 1/2 hours, it is a long evening of turmoil, horror and despair, but it's never tedious, and grows ever more interesting right up to its final moment.

Returning to the framing device of the original novel, Bell initiates his tale in a mysterious locale, the rigging of a sailing ship, deep in the arctic cold, about to be crushed by the terrible power of the ice. Reluctant to abandon his goal of reaching the pole, the Captain (strongly played by Roy Stanton) must decide whether his personal ambition is more valuable than the lives of others, or than life itself. Pleading for reason, Forrester (Matthew Middleton) is as astonished as the captain by the sight of a sled on the ice. They investigate. It is Victor Frankenstein, pursuing his creature to the literal ends of the Earth.

In the remainder of the play we see how he has come to this place and then, alone with the creature, their final resolution. It's an important device, especially given the sobriety of this particular interpretation, and the symbol of crushing, life-robbing cold is strikingly effective. More important, though, is the way in which the drama earns this frame. The heat of life is continuously drawn out by the infinite cold of lifeless eternity, of the soul with no hope beyond an existence which is insufferable.

As Victor Frankenstein, whom we see from childhood on, Brandon Whitehead creates a man whose critical lack of a moral center leads him from disemboweling cats to creating, and animating, a creature from the rotting parts of the newly dead. Mr. Whitehead is particularly effective in making Victor a man who is not such much evil as impotent. In acting as a god, he presents the question of what happens to a god's creation when the deity is found by his creation to be inadequate, false and irresponsible. It's a subtle characterization, marked by the slightest whiff of corruption, a hollowness that allows his amorality to do unspeakable things, and connects him to the destruction of everyone he loves. There is also, in his pale, weak character, something timid and powerless that in failing to take personal responsibility leaves him, like his creature, less than truly alive.

That creature is drawn with touching subtlety and depth by M.J. Sieber. From the moment he is brought to life, we see the naked man. That is true both literally and metaphorically. His large, soft, unpretty body, crossed with bruises and scars, his intelligence only slowly grasping the reality of his existence, his agony far more articulate than his words; this is a being without place or reason to be. He is all pain. As Victor says, later in the play, "Life is obstinate, and it holds us tighter when we hate it most". The creature could not hate it more, did not ask for it, and Victor hates it only slightly less than he fears death. They are locked in an unspeakable damnation which is their continued life, and neither can ever be separate from the other. Victor says, in perhaps the play's most resonant line, "When it spoke, I understood I had lost my freedom forever". The god which creates can never abandon the responsibility of his creation, especially when it demands meaning of him.

As the creature comes to a greater understanding of who and what he is, self-educating himself by reading, he also raises increasingly difficult questions, all the while destroying whatever life he comes in contact with. Intriguingly, his emerging intelligence rarely leads him to better answers, only to far more tortuous questions. The responsibility for all of this is squarely on Victor, who becomes smaller and smaller as his self-created brutality becomes greater.

When he demands that Victor create another monster, a woman to be his wife, it is only so that he can wander his eternal damnation with a like soul. His choice is Justine, a hapless maid who has been wrongly hanged for killing Victor's brother. Retha Tinker is fine in the role throughout, but during the re-animation scene, when she rejects life in favor of an eternal, kinder darkness, her performance is stunning. By then we fully understand how compromised the gift of life has become.

Other fine performances were given by Connor Toms, a young man who loves Victor, and whose purity he cannot corrupt, and by Heather Guiles, as Victor's reluctant bride, Elizabeth. Guiles plays Elizabeth with a sleek grace and elegant clarity that makes her the perfect target for an awful destiny. Her unwillingness to accept her maturity, that she is now capable of giving life, which first appears to her as the stain of menstrual blood on her dress, leads to an eventual acceptance of the marriage bed, and with it her own death in the very act of procreation, the ultimate horror of the play.

This was one of those rare plays so rich in incident and theatrical intelligence that I'm tempted to go on and on. The intimate and wonderfully effective set design, by LB Morse, uses small platforms, like disconnected islands, ropes strung between pillars which are used as the rigging of the ship, and a hanging chair, stark and horrifying as any torture chamber, in which Victor creates his abomination. The sound design, using only abstract tones to suggest crushing ice, for example, was by Nat Whitten. In the end, though, this was a production all about the actor and the text. When performances are this well-crafted, and the play this satisfying, the result is the very best sort of theatre: engaging, provocative, profoundly human.

Return to Home Page