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Theatre in Review: Frankenstein (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Manual Cinema. Photo: Danny Ghitis

In such theatre pieces as ADA/AVA and Lula del Ray, the troupe known as Manual Cinema has done remarkable things with its own brand of multimedia, which includes the use of overhead projectors displaying images that combine static backgrounds, paper puppets, and human shadows, the latter reshaped by masks and wigs to create a variety of distinctive character silhouettes. Frankenstein is, I think, the company's most ambitious work to date; in any case, it may also illustrate the limitations of this unique storytelling approach.

Compared to the relatively simple narratives mentioned above, Frankenstein delivers the bulk of Mary Shelley's novel, along with a large helping of scenes from Shelley's life -- the latter detailing the ghost-story competition between Shelley's husband, Percy, and Lord Byron, which caused Mary to set pen to paper. (These sequences also suggest that the death of her daughter Clara -- who, in fact, died after the book was written -- provided a psychological grounding for her tale of regeneration gone horribly wrong.) Once again, all of the techniques mentioned in the previous paragraph are put to use, along with lengthy sequences -- featuring members of the company performing, silently, in front of a live camera hookup -- which are projected in black and white. The result is a cross between a graphic novel and a production from the German film studio UFA circa 1922. The overall look suggests a homemade reproduction of an early work by Fritz Lang or F. W. Murnau.

Even with such additions, the company's own form of cinema as theatre is as fluent as ever, and it is easy to admire the storyboards of Drew Dir, puppets by Dir and Lizi Breit, video and set design by Davonte Johnson, costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg, lighting by Claire Chrzan, and sound by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter. The original musical score, by Vegter and Kauffman -- played on a variety of instruments both standard and bizarre -- is nothing less than stunning. Among the images that linger in one's mind are Mary Shelley, posed in silhouette atop a Swiss mountain, her skirt rustling in the wind; the hand of Victor Frankenstein's monster, hovering menacingly at a cottage window; and a bird, having been decapitated and resurrected by Victor, returned to her nest, only to discover that her babies have died in her absence.

Still, this is the first Manual Cinema production I've encountered that dragged rather badly in its second half. There are several possible reasons for this, beginning with the lack of surprise: Despite the occasional bit of cheeky humor, this is the story of the novel straight up, causing the evening to be dogged by a nagging sense of predictability. (At one point, I began mentally totting up the number of versions I've read or seen -- not a good sign.) Clocking in at roughly 100 minutes, this is one of the company's longer offerings; it may fare better with more compact formats. For these reasons, one wonders if the company has for once taken a more complicated narrative than it can efficiently deliver; despite a fairly fast pace, there are several longeurs.

If you're unfamiliar with the work of Manual Cinema, such complaints may not matter; the audience at the performance I attended seem quite taken with the visuals and performances. It is certainly true that Sarah Fornace, as Victor Frankenstein and Mary Shelley and Julia Van Arsdale Miller, as Elizabeth Frankenstein and the Creature) give lovely performances informed by silent film style. Fornace, in particular, has eyes that Gloria Swanson would have killed for. But if you have a history with the company - even if you have loved its work - Frankenstein might come off as a bit of a bore. Despite many jolts of creative electricity, this dramatic creature doesn't fully come to life. -- David Barbour

(4 January 2019)

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