frankenstein: without tears

eleanor hadley kershaw

The Vancouver East Cultural Centre, fondly known to locals as the “Cultch”, seems to be an ideal setting for a gothic horror about the possible dangers of playing God. Formerly an abandoned church, its wooden panelling and winding staircase could be creepy if explored alone on a dark stormy night. Tonight the chirpy crowd creates a homely community atmosphere. We cram in, haphazardly thrown together around the least pillar-restricted spots. The uneven floor almost trips me as I make my way round the back of the balcony to the last few empty velvet-covered seats. We huddle together as though round a campfire, eager for the ghost story to start.

Unfortunately the two hour performance doesn’t possess the quirky quality that makes this space so inviting. The eight performers creep hunchbacked and white-faced around the stage, head to toe in the white papier maché-like costuming which also covers the set, oversized beansprout trees and all. They step and grimace in time to the rhyming couplets with which they narrate the story of poor Victor Frankenstein. His childhood, tainted by the death of his parents, and his subsequent unnatural obsession with bringing the dead back to life, resulting in the creation of his monster, are illustrated with frequent songs, clockwork tableaux, and of course, the obligatory lightning flashes. The choppy narrative style keeps us at a distance from the characters portrayed, preventing any lasting emotional engagement. But this gap is not filled with ideas in an attempt at intellectual engagement. The didactic message is clearly spelt out with little space for ambiguity: “if life is a bowl of cherries, one day you’ll choke on a pip”; “the higher you climb, the harder you’ll fall”; don’t mess with nature or pretend to be God, 'cause you’ll get what’s coming to you. The text is strung through with cliché and the irony of the final song of the first act is unbearable: “We’re going to hell in a handbasket; does it get any better than this?”.

After the lengthy courtroom scene that ends the first act, in which Frankenstein’s beloved governess is sentenced to death (we’re not even rewarded with a dramatic execution) for a murder that his own creation, the monster, has committed, my hopes for the second half are not high. However, as the monster – also costumed in white paper from his platform-booted feet to his oversized Stetson – emerges from the shadows to tell his own story, things start to look up. In an unusually touching scene, for once uninterrupted by song and narration, the monster tries to cure his loneliness by befriending an old blind violinist. He breaks down and sobs as he describes his fear of rejection and his companion reaches out to comfort him. Realising that there is something “other” about the creature, the elderly man slowly traces his hands over the gruff monster’s long white claws, and up towards his bandaged face: “Ah, I understand.”

But sadly this friendship, and any potential depth to the piece, is not to be. The man’s family arrive home and chase the creature away in horror; the image of compassion dissolves, along with my tolerance. We are re-introduced to bitty tableaux and songs that fail to elaborate on the rhyming verse. The ideas inherent in Mary Shelley’s novel, her subtle ambiguities about identity, creative responsibility, and our relationship with the outsider, the “other”, seem to have been lost somewhere along the line in this production’s intention to be well-polished. Which it is: well-performed, well-sung, smoothly assembled.

Perhaps the problem here is the show’s packaging. This dummed-down version of Shelley’s novel feels like a show for children, but it isn’t announced as such. I’m bored by the relentless songs, but these might well sustain a 5 year old’s attention through the more complex parts of the plot. I’m disappointed by the lack of darkly gothic frights, but there’s no danger of nightmares for over-imaginative toddlers as a result of a nasty theatrical shock. However, even within the frame of “family theatre”, accompanying parents and older children might still be left wanting something a bit more jagged, a bit more inventive, with a few more original ideas. Nonetheless, the passionate local audience embraced the production…but have they embraced the unknown?

25 January 2008