When I reviewed SummerFest's July 2011 world premiere production of Bo List’s adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at the Arboretum, I wrote, “I long to see this play in a black box theater on a cold, rainy winter day.”
It’s not exactly winter. But driving on a chilly October evening through the mist of rain to the Woodford Theatre Friday was an even more appropriately atmospheric setting for “The Modern Prometheus,” as Shelley’s novel was subtitled.
Woodford Theatre’s reprisal of List’s adaptation, directed by Patti Heying, is large-scale production with plenty of theatrical muscle, a fitting tribute to the iconic creature whose story was a game-changing landmark in 19th century literature.
Heying’s directorial vision satisfyingly underscores the multiple thematic dichotomies, such as the tale’s roots in both horror and science fiction, the natural world versus the man-made world, god versus science and acceptance and rejection, all cleverly conveyed in Jerome Wills masterful scenic design.
Built with exquisite production values, the set and John Holloway’s lighting design work in tandem to create some of the play’s most impacting moments, particularly the laboratory “birth” of The Creature, where light and sound effects punctuate the frightening re-animation procedure. This series of increasingly terrifying moments is a jarring reminder of the trauma of birth, a trauma that is usually immediately neutralized by soothing embraces of welcome.
But the poor creature is instantly rejected in a heart-wrenching moment of senseless pain. While Robert Parks Johnson’s performance as The Creature is fascinating in how he becomes more and more human, it is this first scene which requires he convey a rawness that delivers a particularly rare gut punch. There’s a reason we don’t remember being born, and the fact that The Creature is so fully conscious of his grotesque, artificial “birth” yet cannot yet articulate anything before being cast out as a monster is particularly cruel and hard to watch. It made me think of the many children around the world who are abused and lack the words or power to do anything but suffer and compensate in ways that are often ultimately destructive.
Walter Tunis’ performance as De Lacey, the blind man who defends and befriends The Creature is a heart-melting foil made more tragic by its suggestion of the kind of life The Creature could have had if he had been nurtured rather than rejected.
The parent-child dichotomy runs throughout the show, with Timothy Hull as the reluctant creator, Victor Frankenstein. Hull’s charismatic performance is the energy of the show, an impressive feat since Victor turns out to be not particularly likable. Originally an idealist, his instant rejection of his own creation is not only cruel but reveals an entitled arrogance that is also underscored by the fact that he failed to contact his own fiancee for a entire year before expecting to waltz back into her life and marry her, which he does.
While the show’s technical and dramatic elements work in tandem to produce a satisfying, and occasionally riveting, night of theater, there were a couple of impediments that kept it from being truly great. For one, the fact that Victor’s character had a strong German accent in the “framing” moments of the play (when he is retelling the tale to the captain of a ship) and doesn’t in the meat of the play, when the memory comes alive, is distracting and unnecessary. I see why it was implemented -- to show the distinction of storytelling modes and also because Victor would have been speaking German with his entire family so the audience should just pretend we are hearing the English versions of their natural voices -- but it felt a few times like the character we had invested in suddenly became someone different.
Speaking of Victor’s family, Caitlyn Waltermire, Jeni Benavides, and Greg Wilson all deliver solid performances as his love interest and relatives, but I sometimes felt a struggle to deeply connect with them which might have been due to sitting far away from the stage. The scale of the set and the epic nature of some of the themes can make the scenes in the Frankenstein home (before all the murdering and woe begin, that is) seem rather unintentionally small by comparison. Put another way: even though Woodford Theatre is more intimate than the Aboretum, actors still have to chew a little more scenery to reach the remote seats and compete with the rest of the production in scale and grandeur.
All in all, this second Lexington-area rendering of the show satisfied and entertained me as much as the first while also inciting me to think even more deeply about its core themes and revelations. List's adaptation is getting performances around the country, and is due to be published soon. But it is great that the Central Kentucky theater community also continues to invest in List's work.