frankenstein: the limits of design

alex ferguson

Dov Mickelson, Tim Machin, Sarah Machin-Gale, Nancy McAlear, Frankenstein

Dov Mickelson, Tim Machin, Sarah Machin-Gale, Nancy McAlear, Frankenstein

Dov Mickelson, Tim Machin, Sarah Machin-Gale, Nancy McAlear, Frankenstein

A blind old fiddle player and the Creature (aka the Frankenstein monster) talk around a campfire. The Creature (George Szilagyi) is attired in what looks like shredded, white, hand-made paper. So is the old man (Dov Mickleson). Softer white fabrics are also layered into their costumes, and the paper covers almost every set piece, including the two stumps they are sitting on (designer Bretta Gerecke). White grease-paint completes the wintry, deathly tone of the setting.

When you take in a Catalyst production, you get a world that is aesthetically complete. You can expect rigorous consistency of appearance in the design, and persistence of tone in the performances. Which makes the scene described above a bit of an anomaly. In what is a rare exception to the rhyming couplets that have dominated the script, we are given prose dialogue. The scene is also unique in allowing two characters a stretch of uninterrupted conversation. Normally, ever-present narrators comment on the action. The Creature pleads for understanding (“Please don’t hate me”), and the old man offers his compassion. The scene is affecting in a way that the play’s alienating performance style hasn’t been, up to this point.

Virtually the entire play is delivered in metered verse, spoken or sung by a group of gothic spectres who seem to have emerged from an icy northern crypt. They lurk, they twitch, they glide. There’s a bit of the B-movie hunchback in some of them, others opt for the menace of Boris Karloff or Vincent Price. Judging from the corny, aphoristic content of much of the script, these references are probably deliberate. In fact, the text offers an almost exhaustive supply of proverbs and platitudes: “The higher you climb, the harder it is when you fall.” It’s relentless and uncompromising in its devotion to end rhymes — Which is easy enough to do / Whether you’re happy or you’re blue / Writing great dramatic text / Or just a snarky little review.

The narrative is handled in an equally simplistic manner. We are given a generic psychological sketch of Victor Frankenstein’s journey from happy child to tormented scientist: childhood trauma is the source of adult obsession. This biography is faithful to the broad outlines of Mary Shelley’s novel, but it’s short on the kind of details that offer genuine insight or build a character portrait that is unique or surprising. Despite the two-hour duration of the show, character relationships are likewise merely schematic and therefore unaffecting. Instead of narrative layers, we get a strong design concept, and highly competent physical and vocal work by the actors. Don’t get me wrong, I love image-based theatre, physical theatre and contemporary dance — I can easily do without psychological character development. But in the case of Frankenstein, form and style fail to make up for a lack of nuanced story telling and complex character relationships.

What seems to be missing from the outset is a genuine question, a speculative point of departure. Writer-director Jonathan Christenson has made up his mind about the issue, the meaning is prescribed: too much tinkering with the laws of nature is a bad thing. This lack of ambiguity is evident in Victor’s relationship to the Creature. He despises him and doesn’t waver from that position until the very end. Until that point he suffers no inner turmoil about whether he should terminate his scientific progeny, so there’s no issue to wrestle with. As a result, there’s really no play here.

Maybe it’s a control issue. As writer, director and composer, Christenson seems to have kept a tight leash on every aspect of his creation. Unlike the creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, Christenson’s monster — the production — lacks the capability to rebel. It’s ironic that a play about a scientist-inventor is lacking in invention. The show plods along methodically, like a rhyming pattern that won’t quit, like a thesis question that presupposes its answer.

24 January 2008