Rereading “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” and seeing it vividly dramatized by Book-It Repertory Theatre, it is hard not to wonder if Mary Shelley pulled off the biggest literary hoax of the last two centuries.
Could a lass of barely 20, with no formal education, really have written in 1819 this multilayered tale — part Gothic horror story, part philosophical brief and part rumination on the Bible, Faust, Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and scientific morality?
How could she have marshaled the maturity, the confidence and flair to pull it off, never to write anything half as memorable afterward?
Her marvel of invention had its first theatrical spinoff in London a few years after its publication.
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Innumerable “Frankenstein” plays, films and TV miniseries of widely varying quality later, Book-It’ Repertory Theatre’s version wins points by hewing (mostly) to Shelley’s engrossing yarn about a young scientist who dares to play God — at his own peril.
Adapter-director David Quicksall’s assured adaptation can exert a viselike grip on your senses, stir your intellect and emotions, and, in its chill-inducing design and fidelity to Shelley’s most artful prose, get pretty spooky.
Here and there, though, are inconsistencies of tone and some over-emphatic acting, which jar the unique spell the story casts.
Connor Toms has a marathon role in Victor Frankenstein, the ambitious Swiss experimenter who reaches too far. Determined to build aliving being out of spare body parts, he discovers a secret technique to revive dead flesh.
From his rescue on an Arctic ice floe by a British sea captain, to his crazed compulsion to wreak vengeance on the archenemy he gave life to, Victor is mostly center stage. And though the seafarer (Frank Lawler) chimes in a bit while writing down Victor’s saga in a letter to his sister, Frankenstein is largely the narrator of his own misfortunes.
Toms maintains an intense focus throughout — as an arrogant rogue scientist in overdrive, and later as a hollow penitent who bitterly regrets his quest. As usual, Toms is an attractively hearty and articulate player.
But I was glad that his portryal gained subtlety and nuance, after Victor’s many half-crazed bouts of mania. In Act 2, Toms convincingly sinks into guilt, remorse and horror, as Victor is dogged by his botched experiment with cloning (the impressive Jim Hamerlinck).
Quicksall’s adaptation occasionally (and unnecessarily) descends into bone-crunching, creature-feature land. His theatrical embellishment of Victor sawing off limbs and hacking loose a head may be gruesomely funny, but it’s a jolt of grisly B-movie hokum in an otherwise pensive show. And another additions, a lurid vision of Frankenstein’s nude, sex-hungry intended mate, is also gratingly off-tone.
This “Frankenstein” could use more of Hamerlinck’s genuinely anguished “monster,” who emerges dramatically from the shadows conjured in Andrea Bryn Bush’s very effective set — a set that does absolute wonders with billowing white curtains.
The suitably tall (6-foot-5) actor is made up to resemble the zombie victim of a serious shaving accident. And his dead-white eyes are ghoulish.
But Hamerlinck handles beautifully the creature’s long, poetic autobiographical monologue, straight from Shelley, and pantomimed in part by other actors as he speaks. This is the exculpatory section of “Frankenstein” where this bestial but feeling being describes his expulsion from the garden of humanity — as Adam is expelled from Eden, in “Paradise Lost.” (Shelley references the Milton poem repeatedly in her book, and also the Greek legend of the fire-bearing Prometheus.)
Hamerlinck ‘s outcast is both terrifying and pitiful, helpless and homicidal. He’s a living rebuke to the callow scientist’s sin of “birthing” then rejecting and abandoning him.
One of the many philosophical strands in the tale is how entwined the effects of nature and nurture are in those who commit violence — an unusual notion in Shelley’s day, and not an entirely popular one in our own.
The rest of the cast fulfills its duties well, particularly Ian Bond as Victor’s genial longtime friend, and Sascha Streckel as his loyal, doomed beloved, Margaret. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also commend Nathan Wade’s ominous soundscape and Andrew D. Smith’s ghostly lighting design.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org