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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Frankenstein
City Lights Theatre Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule


Nick Sky
Photo by Taylor Sanders
When Mary Shelley first wrote her novel "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus," could she ever have imagined that some two hundred years later in 2017, over ninety (to date) adapted stage productions would have been staged around the world? What is it about this story of a young doctor who decides to take on the role of god to create a man and to father what he comes to see as a monster and demon? Are we fascinated by the horrific maelstrom he leases upon himself and his family, seeing this in Shakespearean terms where a tragic flaw sends the doctor down a no-exit path to self-destruction? Or is there something about his repulsed reaction to "the other," to someone different and alien, that we find perhaps all too familiar? Whatever the answer to these and other questions, Mary Shelley's ageless story has stimulated yet another re-creation, this time a melding of art and technology in a world premiere Frankenstein adapted and directed by Kit Wilder and commissioned by City Lights Theatre Company.

Against a backdrop of sloping and leaning rectangular columns designed by scenic master Ron Gasparinetti, the familiar tale of an ambitious doctor re-animating a dead body into a resurrected creature occurs. In Kit Wilder's version, the reborn is less a scarred and pieced-together monstrosity than we most often see in film, and more a pale, bald, oversized baby. The giant infant slowly remembers his past bank of language and knowledge the more he encounters the world and its inhabitants around him. His rediscovery of memory comes in startling, seemingly painful spurts of energy within his brain—vividly illustrated in swirling designs and flashes as "projection bursts" on the massive, slanted columns created along with the accompanying lighting effects by Nick Kumamoto, with the help of video technician Devin Davis. On those same columns, Mr. Kumamoto uses projection mapping to give us multi-dimensional pictures of the narrative's scenes (interior and exterior) and of close ups of various characters' faces.

George Psarras at times literally shakes the floor at our feet with the fury of sounds he has created (without ever deafening our ears). He also fills the atmosphere with an appropriately eerie musical score that he has composed along with undertones of mysterious, threatening sounds that lead us to anticipate and dread the next terrible event. Together, the technical and production values of this world premiere are the highlights and very positive, key strengths of a production that unfortunately also has a number of new-script flaws.

The play begins with all cast members one by one stepping to the fore and quoting random-sounding sayings of the past such as "What is a human being? Everything and nothing" and "God is dead." Throughout the play, action is briefly interrupted by an individual turning to us and reciting yet another "truth" (e.g., "The intention that man should be happy is not in the plan of creation"), with the originator's image projected on a background column. The logic behind these this ongoing barrage of famous and not-so-famous sayings escapes me and seems to do little to help and too much to harm the general flow of the plot.

There also seems to be a few missing pieces in the script. One, we never really see by what means the clever Dr. Victor Frankenstein "re-animates" the body. It just happens while he and his assistant/friend Henry Clerval stand around waiting for something to happen (finally giving up and leaving before the miraculous event occurs).

Two, and more puzzling, is that while the Creature will repeatedly bemoan—often screaming over and again with increasing anger and vehemence in act two—that his creator once rejected him, what we actually see is Victor approach his creation upon first seeing him with open arms, only to receive what appears to be a life-threatening shock upon touching him. The recurring line thereafter is that the almost-dead Victor upfront rejected the Creature. Even though witnesses to Victor's near-demise chase the Creature away, that disconnect—at least in my and my companion's experience of the play—makes much of the rest of the Creature's anger against Victor and his family difficult to believe. (What is understandable, however, is the Creature's fear and growing rage against other strangers he encounters—most of whom taunt and strike out against him without ever getting to know him).

Nick Mandracchia is the Creature, and his first appearance is his best of the evening. Hidden in the beginning under a bloodied cover as still as a corpse on an operating table, the Creature suddenly projects a clasped hand that jerks in renewed, stiffened movement. Mr. Mandracchia then proceeds to rediscover the Creature's body with shocked and fascinated wonder, eventually attempting like a newborn calf to stand and take his first step. Throughout the first act, the Creature continues to be mesmerizing to watch, especially when he studies from afar (and in fact saves from cold and hunger) a poor, freezing family—all the time rediscovering language and mannerisms by observing with patient intensity.

One of the highlights of Mr. Wilder's script and direction that really works is when the Creature finally interacts with and is befriended by the cabin's Old Man, played with the genuine empathy and caring of someone different from him by Ross Arden Harkness (who also doubles as Victor's mentor Professor Waldman). Where the Creature begins to suffer, due both to script and actor's interpretation, is in act two when Mr. Mandracchia's portrayal becomes too uniform—continuously over-done volume and annoyingly repetitious in bitter whine and singular complaint.

As Victor Frankenstein and his lap-dog-like friend Henry, Max Tachis and Jeremy Ryan, respectively, have isolated moments of inspired and revealing portrayals. Overall, however, their performances are more neutral in final effect—neither objectionable nor memorable—even though their characters are certainly central by the very roles they play.

Much more successful throughout is Roneet Aliza Rahamim as Elizabeth, Victor's fiancée and eventual wife. She brings face-value credibility to the role of a young woman clearly and persistently in love with a doctor who wavers in his attention to her. Equally believably, she increasingly grows in her own strength to take control of her own destiny (and his)—at least until she encounters the revenge-seeking force he has unleashed into the world without her knowledge. Ms. Rahamim never flounders in her ability to convince us of the mounting fear she is feeling for her husband nor for the joy she overwhelming experiences any time he shows her the slightest attention that a loving husband would normally jump to give his new bride.

The twists and turns of the script lead eventually toward a tragic ending we know is coming from the beginning. However, in this script, what happens to the key characters does not draw sympathy for either side of the conflict. By the final, fatal encounter, we have been worn down by the repeated interruptions of quoting heads and by too-oft repeated lines more shouted than emoted in interesting and nuanced manners.

Any time a theatre company undertakes a world premiere, much less one commissioned, kudos are warranted for the risks undertaken. While this new offering of Frankenstein has some issues mainly of script and some of direction (notably in act two), the innovative technical and production aspects are wonderful to experience and make the evening's outing to City Lights overall a worthwhile adventure.

Frankenstein continues through April 23, 2017, at City Lights Theatre Company, 529 S. Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at cltc.org or by calling 408-295-4200.


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