Frankenstein (Mortal Toys)
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
January 10, 2008
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has long since been commandeered by pop culture and even spawned the still-popular mad scientist genre (and thank goodness it did or otherwise I won't have known what I wanted to be when I grew up) but in Automata's production, now showing in HERE's Dream Music Puppetry Program, the story sticks very close to Shelley's original and that brings us closer to the provocative themes Shelley intended and farther from the Halloween mask.
The story begins and ends with Victor Frankenstein wandering in the Arctic when he comes upon a ship that rescues him. He tells his rescuer his story. As a young scientist, he is suddenly inspired as to how inanimate flesh can be brought to life. He patches together a man, intending him to be beautiful, but when he is finished he is disgusted by the creature he has brought into this world. He utterly rejects him and the creature runs off. He meets it again and it tries to explain to Victor the pain of rejection and loneliness and begs Victor to create a female companion. Victor attempts to do so but gives up and the creature begins to kill people close to Victor. Finally, he decides to hunt the creature down but he fails leading him to be rescued in the Arctic.
The monster just wants to be loved. He speaks rather eloquently about it. That's right, he does more than just grunt. Erik Ehn gives us a rich script filled with insights into the arrogance of science and the need for acceptance. It has a nice balance of narration and dialogue and that really drew me into the story. I can't say how much of the script is taken directly form the novel but I was impressed with Ehn's vivid language.
Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson design and direct the show. What immediately strikes you is the beautiful, and yet tiny, look of the production. There is a puppet booth at center but that's where only about half the action takes place. They use stick puppets (a paper cutout of a character on a stick) that drop in from the top of the booth, and intricately designed and constructed scenery that slides in from the sides. There are flaps on the front panels of the booth that flip open to reveal shadow puppets. And everything is so perfectly lit by light designers Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and John Eckeret. Geiser and Simpson certainly create a great look for the show and a very mysterious atmosphere, but the pace of the show is pretty much a flat line.
The music helps with the mysterious, creepy factor but it doesn't find many peaks and valleys either. Composer Severin Behnen tinkles a toy piano, he pluck and strums its exposed strings, he drums a little, he makes a violin creek like a rocking ship, which put together make for an often spooky live soundtrack. It was impressive watching him perform as a one-man band.
Equally impressive is the voice work of Chris Payne and Dana L. Wilson. Payne does the majority of the vocal characterizations and he does them very well. He finds some distinctive features for each character. I never lost track of who was speaking. I especially liked his eloquent yet gruff monster voice. The puppeteers do a good job animating puppets with relatively little range of manipulation. The majority of the emotion comes through the other design elements. Most of the puppets' faces are too small to really see but the creature is big enough to see and there was a point when in saw a little emotion in him.
This show has a sophisticated look and sound condensed into a miniature package. The art in the design is well done and the sound is unique. It is a very interesting, though maybe a little slow moving, experience.