Theatrical Impression: Frankenstein at Book-It Rep

[What is a Theatrical Impression? Click here.]

Last Thursday, I saw Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus at Book-It Repertory Theatre (running through March 9). It was only the second night of previews, but there was a nearly full house and the energy was strong and promising for the cast. I know they had a long weekend ahead of them and had been dealing with actor illness and difficult tech in the days preceding. Overall, the production was enjoyable, but I think it could have been much shorter (it was 2 1/2 hours long) and more cohesive in aesthetics.

I am pretty familiar with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I read it for a bizarre project my university developed for incoming freshmen. (Ideally, all incoming classmen would read the same book then discuss it with people we would never interact with the following four years. Naturally, there was only one person per small group who read the book in its entirety and I was one of those.) Also, my father (and my show-going partner for this production) taught Frankenstein in his English classes for most of my life. From his familiarity developed over several years, he created multimedia lesson plans and watched every film iteration of the book. So he was quick to point out what was missing from the production and what was added in.

Armed with this knowledge, I was able to cobble together an impression. In general, the additions were strong for the benefit of the female actors. But some were unnecessary, because they detracted from the general aesthetic of the show. I don’t know exactly what David Quicksall wanted me to take away from his production. Of course, I entered the theatre with preconceived notions, but it still felt disjointed overall. I think this was due to two damaging changes: the additional letter at the top of the play and the truncation of the Creature’s story (the best part of the damn book).

Adding a letter means that the play then became a story (the Creature’s) within another story (Victor’s) within a letter (the Captain’s) within ANOTHER letter (his sister’s, completely fabricated). The novel is already over-complicated in the sense of its meta-ness. Why add another letter? What does it all mean? If the Captain is writing a letter at the top of the show, do we NEED to know why? The first moment of a play should be solely used to express to the audience this is why we are gathered here today. Were we gathered to ask when the Captain was coming home or were we gathered to question our humanity and savageness and if they are synonymous? I think it is the latter.

The first act spent most of its time on the very first part of Victor’s story, meaning the Creature got less stage time, when it his story that makes us think about what it means to be human. Are we truly enlightened beings, when we we will easily forsake someone in need because he seems like he might hurt us? Or are we all just savages, no better or worse than the creature with basic desires of shelter, food,  companionship, and knowledge? What is a savage? The noble savage is a common theme in literature (Brave New World was one of my favorite books in middle school) and has been a common theme in the news recently; Trayvon Martin‘s shooting first comes to mind. I think Quicksall lost a grand opportunity to convey an important and current theme to us for the sake of comedic gore  in a pseudo-gothic setting with a flimsy, yet over-complicated set.

I think the play will come together. This was only the second preview, so as the actors become more confident with their stage movements and transitions, it will become a well-loved piece. Most of the audience gave them a standing ovation for a preview, and I think it will only continue to be so well-received. However, I still think the script could have used another pass: one, for accuracy and two, to give more of the dialogue to mouths and motivations of the characters. The end result would have been a more cohesive aesthetic and a less disjointed performance.

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5 thoughts on “Theatrical Impression: Frankenstein at Book-It Rep”

  1. Can you elaborate on the “noble savage” theme and its relation to Trayvon Martin? You kind of lost me there.

    One of the things that struck me was the difference in treating the nudity of the male monster vs. female monster. The male monster was in full silhouette with the audience barely being able to detect his nudity, but the female monster was fully lit and exposed in hers. Why do we feel the need to protect the delicate men from showing off their dicks, but breasts and vagina are fair game. Ugh.

    1. Wasn’t Trayvon Martin shot because Zimmerman felt threatened, and he used the “stand your ground” defense? I linked them because the Creature tells us that humans always looked at him as an immediate threat before hearing him speak, which reminded me of how everyday citizens might cross the street if they see someone who makes them uncomfortable or even worse, react violently.

      The female creature is another point that is confusing, yes. While I liked how they revealed the male Creature, I mostly ignored the female Creature scene because it was grossly magnified. Kenneth Branagh’s film version explores what would happen if the female chose a human man over the creature, but in the book, Victor doesn’t even bring her to life. I found that scene in the play gratuitous and part of a different story that I didn’t think was being portrayed onstage. More for the actress to do, and very fun, but in the world of “re-animating the book” that I thought was Book-It’s mission.

      Do you feel like having the female Creature come to life, if only for a moment, added to the play? Your description also makes me think of how Elizabeth (as female #1) stays so virginal and pure and then the creature (female #2) becomes whore-ish by contrast.

  2. I see the point your trying to make about Trayvon Martin as separate from the “noble savage” concept. I see your point but the connective tissue to noble savage doesn’t relate for me – in essence, who is the noble savage in that situation? That’s where you lost me.

    I was wondering about the female creature being brought to life. I didn’t remember it happening in the book, either but it’s been so long that I honestly couldn’t remember. I don’t think it added much for me, personally, except prurient interest.

    On the whole, the production for me wasn’t adapted well. There was very little about it that I found theatrical. And because the book is already so narration heavy, I was hoping they wouldn’t narrate everything but show us more. But as it stood, I feel like I had Frankenstein read to me while people went through the motions on stage.

    There was only one non-virginal moment for Elizabeth in the play and that’s when Victor and she make out. But, you’re right, the symbolism and whiteness of her character was annoying especially in contrast to the creature who got to be raw animal sex. Women, as it goes, really are one of the two. As women, we should probably know that especially since everyone tells us that.

    Here’s the question I’d like to pose to adapters of any stripe but especially to Book-It (and one that you partially posed in the post): What are you trying to say with this story now? And if you plan on taking liberties, where can you stretch them to make the source material a little less misogynistic (AND FUCKING WHITE)? As adaptations go, I was more than a little disappointed that this one took so few risks, considering the source material is pretty risky stuff in regards to what it says about human nature.

  3. Enjoyed reading this, and I think a lot of these critiques are valid, but if you take issue with the Captain’s letter to his sister Margaret, then you gotta take it up with Shelley. Walton’s letters both open and close the original novel.

    1. Thanks for the response!

      It’s not the Captain’s letter to his sister I take issue with, it’s the fabricated letter from his sister to the captain which was added into the script before the captain’s letter to his sister which frames the novel. (Well, that’s according to my father who taught Frankenstein for several years. I didn’t pick up a copy to verify, but I trust him.)

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