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A CurtainUp Review

Don't waste a good dream for something you can have. Dream of the impossible. ---Victor Frankenstein in Neal Bell's adaptation of Shelley's novel about the young doctor . whose "impossible dream" of defeating death prompts the birth of a monster creature.
Having successfully lent his brand of poetic surrealism to Emile Zola's realistic novel Thérèse Raquin (see link) several seasons ago, Neal Bell has now opted to strip the campy horror show aura off the Frankenstein myth. His play Monster, which is being given a limited run world premiere by the Classic Stage Company, is intriguing if not as satisfying as his adaptation of the Zola novel. It takes its title, Monster, from the creature born from the scientific experiments of a brilliant young doctor, Victor Frankenstein. Both the Creature and Dr. Frankenstein are the brain children of Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Their story, titled Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was published in 1818. The part gothic, part science fiction novel had an irresistible theatricality and it was adapted for the stage within five years of publication.

From its first staging in 1823 until the 1931 release of the granddaddy of a whole industry of Frankenstein movies, theatrical versions popped up regularly. The book's sweeping prose, colorful imagery and multi-layered themes have won it high praise in literary circles, Frankenstein's reading audience grew as a result of these lighter, less complex stage adaptations. Once movie goers saw Boris Karloff's Creature, with his flat, squared-off head (as much a creation of Hollywood makeup artist Jack Pierce, as the Creature was Shelley's by way of Dr. Frankenstein), the name Frankenstein was swept into the lexicon of instantly recognized cultural allusions.

While the film that made Karloff a star (he was given the part by director James Whale only because Bela Lugosi was unavailable) seeded countless spinoffs and spoofs, these movies pretty much put an end to Frankenstein as a stage vehicle. Consequently, Neal Bell's new adaptation of the Shelley novel is the first script created for live performance in a long time. But don't expect Bell's Creature to be a surreal monster. Christopher Donahue, who ably conveys this more intelligent and empathetic Creature looks like a regular man. Granted, he's a big, scary guy, whose lumbering movements would make you recoil were you to meet him in a dark alley even without the horrific makeup we've come to expect from Frankenstein's monster.

Mr. Bell's role model is Shelley's more brainy and poignant Creature who turns into a murderous monster only after being abandoned by the Doctor -- unlike the Karloff character who was evil from the moment he was galvanized into life. (Maybe the parts stitched into this "Paradise Lost" reading Creature included some scholar or philosopher's brain). As the title character is closer to the Promethean figure, alluded to in the original subtitle, so the script generally follows the book. This includes the beginning when Captain Walton (Jonno Roberts) and the crew of the North Pole bound ship Aurora encounter the exhausted, world-weary Victor Frankenstein. The Captain, also a man of grand dreams, is drawn to the mysterious Frankenstein. His curiosity is the device leading into the flashback to Victor's youth, love affair with his cousin Elizabeth (Annie Parisse) and his scientific studies and eventual obsession with defeating death by creating new life from the bodies of the dead. Bell's penchant for the fantastic is also evident in the inclusion of an animated cat (Michael Pitt).

Bell's more literary than camp adaptation is echoed by director Michael Greif . While Kenneth Posner's lighting and Jane Shaw's sound design provide plenty of eerie atmospheric effects, the production does not try to match Hollywood's pyrotechnics. The shift from place to place and present to past is achieved by moving the action to different corners of the stage. The major prop of Robert Brill's stage design is a translucent curtain that is used to establish the unexplored expanse of the arctic landscape as well as the interior landscape of the characters. That curtain, frequently dragged open and shut, and with much sound and fury, is as high-tech as this production gets. When the Monster drowns Frankenstein's young brother, the sounds we hear are created by one of the actors sitting at the foot of one of the aisles, running her hands back and forth through a tin bucket filled with water.

Greif's staging is effective and he has drawn solid and energetic performances not just from Donahue but from all the actors -- Jake Weber is fine as Victor, Annie Parisse as Elizbeth and Christen Clifford as Justine, the servant who is unjustly accused of the murder of Victor's young brother William (a second role for Michael Pitt). The emphasis on the ethical considerations of Frankenstein's abandoning his creation is certainly timely in the light of recent scientific advances in the area of cloning, organ transplants, invitrio fertilization and stem cell research. It all points to a thought-provoking, entertaining new twist to a story we all think we know. Unfortunately, while Frankenstein generates the electrical power to generate a new life from his collection of body parts, Monster doesn't generate a sufficient dramatic charge to be thoroughly satisfying. Much of the time it feels like one of those dark poperas that have pervaded the musical theater -- but without the music.

Maybe as the Creature has usurped his Creator's name, Boris Karloff and all those Frankenstein spoofs have made it impossible to substitute cerebral stimulation and a vulnerable monster for one who sends chills and thrills down our spine.

For a review of Neal Bell's adaptation of Emile Zola's novel, Therese Raquin go here
For a review of Bloody Poetry, a play which covered the circumstances leading to the writing of Frankenstein go here

Written by Neal Bell, from the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Jake Weber, Michael Cullen, Christopher Donahue, Annie Parisse, Michael Pitt, Jonno Roberts and Christen Clifford.
Set Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Classic Stage, 136 E. 13th St., 212/677-4210 CSC web site
1/15/01-2/17/02; opening 1/27/02.
Tues - Sat at 8pm, with matinees Sat at 2pm and Sun at 3pm -- $30 to $40, with Pay What You Can $25 tickets for youths under 18, half hour before show time
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/24 performance

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