Frankenstein – Theatre Review: Southwest Shakespeare Company, Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

It’s amazing to think that the world’s most famous Gothic Horror novel, the one that practically invented stories that begin on dark, stormy nights, was written by an eighteenth-century teenager. Certain scholars have speculated that perhaps it was really the work of Percy Shelley, giving credence to the reason as to why the novel was originally published anonymously, though literary circles generally accept and most believe it was written by his wife Mary Shelley when she was single and called Mary Godwin. Acknowledgment to the author came two years later in a French edition.

With a new adaptation by Quinn Mattfield, Frankenstein is one of two productions that Southwest Shakespeare Company has chosen to begin its 25th Season in the valley. Frankenstein will run in repertory with Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre until November 10 at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa. As audiences learned in a short speech at the beginning of the play this past weekend, both productions will use the same scenic design by Kristen Peterson, adapting the backdrop to suit each production as required. And for the record, writer Mattfeld will be directing the Shakespeare production (review next week).

What makes this new adaptation of Shelley’s classic novel dramatically interesting is what Mattfeld has included and what he’s taken out. The omission of certain characters and the streamlining of events are all good decisions. With a running time of 135 minutes, plus intermission, the play is long enough with a script that’s already in danger of occasionally feeling too wordy. There’s a lot of descriptive narration, first from Frankenstein (an excellent Jesse James Kamps) then the creature (Joshua Murphy, equally good). It’s the kind suited more to an audio recording where a narrator covers emotions not expressed in regular dialog, and what can neither be told nor seen in a normal character exchange. Covering everything included in the novel would have turned SWS’s production into a six-hour epic or longer.

The book is a sprawling account that uses three distinct plot lines in its telling. The first revolves around Robert Watson, the letters to his sister while exploring the Arctic Circle and his reaction to the story he is told by Victor Frankenstein, then later by Frankenstein’s creature. The second is the narrative from Frankenstein himself, while the third is the story as told from the creature’s point of view, eventually circling back to Watson and his voyage. Understandably, the play removes Watson completely. It works in a literary form – the man’s reaction to what he hears is how the reader of the novel should naturally react – but not so effective on stage. Focusing solely on the creature and his creator is all that is needed to effectively tell the tale. The only reference to what might be the Arctic Circle is when Frankenstein later tells us he chased the creature somewhere up north.

The decision to cut the background to the DeLacey family is also a good one. Where during the second act when the story is narrated from the creature’s perspective, the man created from the body parts of the dead stumbles upon the DeLacey’s living together in the country. He views them from afar, remaining hidden, knowing his sight would repulse them. But upon realizing that grandfather DeLacey (Doug Waldo) is blind, communicating with the elderly gentleman doesn’t require the same challenge. It’s grandpa who over a lengthy period secretly educates the creature and turns him from something that can barely speak into an articulate, informed man. Shelley’s novel has DeLacy teaching the creature how to speak French – the family members are persecuted French exiles living isolated in a different country, their wealth taken by the French authorities – but once again, the detail required to relate their story would be a lengthy distraction from the required forward motion of the play.

When the story commences, it’s evident that all those early years in the Frankenstein household are eliminated. Gone are the scenes with Victor as a child and Elizabeth as the orphan playmate. Instead, it all begins in the way you would want all Gothic horrors to begin, particularly one that opens just ahead of Halloween; on a dark and stormy night. There’s a clap of sound designer Peter Bish’s thunder followed by the splatter of falling rain. “Blood!” declares Victor Frankenstein. He’s reading a passage from Macbeth and quotes the play to his bride-to-be, Elizabeth (Kim Stephenson Smith).

Shakespeare is quoted throughout. Where in the novel, both Victor and the creature refer to several differing classics of the Romantic movement prevalent during author Shelley’s time, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, it’s comparisons with William Shakespeare that adapter Mattfeld concentrates on the most. Considering that the theatrical company is, after all, the Southwest Shakespeare Company, there’s nothing wrong with some extra in-house mentions of the Bard’s work, particularly with the opening cries of “Blood” when it’s so apt to the subject matter of Shelley’s novel. But it’s Milton’s account of the creation and the story of Adam that inspired Victor’s creature to question his existence and the need for his own Eve. Like the elimination of certain characters, an element of themes altered creeps in when literary references are removed. It spoils nothing, but in the way Mattfeld has streamlined events, because of his newly invented use of Shakespeare in the story, he’s made the play all the more interesting.

Director Patrick Walsh makes great use of a twelve-person cast. With the exception of Kamp’s Frankenstein and Murphy’s creature, the remaining members not only play dual roles, sometimes more, but act as a high-energy ensemble portraying crowds in the street, at a hanging, and riding trains. When Frankenstein sits alone at a bar, the revelers at the other table noisily drink their pints and arm wrestle each other. The ensemble freezes like a picture in a frame while Frankenstein looks on, underlining his distance from those around him. As with the image of Victor drifting down, submerged underwater, bathed in Stacey Walston’s blue lighting design, it’s these many creative instances that keep you engaged, always wondering what the next ensemble moment of Walsh’s creative theatricality will be.

There’s also some sly humor. While there’s little in the play that resembles anything of the previous big screen Frankenstein entertainments, in a thinly veiled nod to the comedy Young Frankenstein, when Victor is greeted by a Scotsman (Beau Heckman) upon the scientist’s arrival off the train north of England’s border, the local asks whether he should pronounce the name as Frankenstein or Frankensteen. And when Felix (Seth Scott) plays with his daughter Grace (Bethany Baca) pretending he’s a monster with his arms reaching out before him, he walks and growls as if doing his best Boris Karloff.

Audience members unfamiliar with how the classic story should be told and are attracted to the play while thinking only of the nuts and neck bolts of a Universal Pictures movie or a Hammer Horror production will not be seeing what they expect. But for those who know the novel and how Frankenstein’s story should really be told, this new production will impress. With Quinn Mattfield’s efficient adaptation under Patrick Walsh’s creative direction, Southwest Shakespeare Company’s Frankenstein is not only what you should expect, it often exceeds it.

Frankenstein runs concurrently with Pericles, Prince of Tyre at Mesa Arts Center until November 10

Pictures Courtesy of Durant Photography

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