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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Neil Bell’s Monster
is an Overwrought Melodrama

Also see Richard's review of Paula West at the Plush Room

Monster
Lauren English and Paul Santiago
SF Playhouse is currently presenting a high-strung adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story, Monster, by Neal Bell. I have seen many film versions of the monster tale, dating back to a silent film made in the '20s. However, after Universal started the Frankenstein phase, followed by numerous productions by that studio and Hammer films in the U.K., including Kenneth Branagh’s film in 1994 with Robert De Niro, I thought I had seen enough of the poor misguide creature. But it was not to be, since last year there was an Off-Broadway festival musical of the creature’s life, and San Francisco Theatre of Yugen did a Noh version of the tale.

Neal Bell and director Bill English have veered away from the Boris Karloff and Mel Brooks take on the monster. They have captured the overwrought character of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. The playwright preserves many of the details that were lacking in those films. This play follows more closely the recent Branagh’s film. Monster was first presented at Classic Stage in New York on January 27, 2002. Since that time, various companies have presented this classic horror tale, including the Sight Unseen Theatre Group in Los Angeles and Theatre Schmeater in Seattle, which received positive reviews.

Neal Bell has taken the novel's sweeping prose and much of its dialogue, almost to the point where it would be considered camp in today’s 21st century world. The two-hour production starts out in an arctic wasteland when Walton (Kalli Jonsson), an explorer looking for the North Pole, comes across Victor Frankenstein (Jason Frazier) wandering through the freezing cold. Frankenstein is in search of the monster he has created. How he got to the North Pole from Bavaria, we never know.

Walton is so fascinated by the man that they sit on the ice and Victor unfolds the strange story of his life. The story is told in flashbacks of his childhood, how he created a man (Paul Santiago), then abandoned him on a mountainside, how the creature gets vengeance on his family by killing Victor's younger brother William (Csilla Horvath) and causes the innocent maid to be hanged, killing Victor’s wife Elizabeth (Lauren English) in the bargain. Now the monster is somewhere out there on an iceberg.

Watching this production, I kept thinking of Dracula, the Musical that recently closed in New York. The conversations have the same stilted language, emotional hysterics by several of the actors and a gothic structure. Sometimes it is overly eerie, airily exaggerated and severely satirical. There are scenes that are serious and the laugher is unintentional.

Director Bill English has assembled a good group of actors who put on an old-fashioned melodrama, and he has caught the over-excited tone of the book. Jason Frazier is very good as a man who lacks a moral center. Playing first a precocious child, he says, “Papa, is there a God? Papa, am I a god?”. He seems to think so as the play progresses. Jason has a great voice for this type of melodrama, and his hysterical side is very well accomplished. He somehow reminds me of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Paul Santiago plays the monster in mostly grunting, childish beast phrases. He is not allowed to the give the long and moving monologue about the pain of his loneliness and rejection that is highlighted in Mary Shelley’s novel. (The Theatre of Yugen Company had a more literate monster.) You really never feel sorry for the man who did not wish to be reborn.

Zehra Berkman is excellent as the feisty, unsophisticated servant girl while Csilla Horvath does a good imitation of a 10-year-old gifted boy and of a talking cat. Lauren English as the wife of Victor has little to do but to look proper and talk like a Jane Austen character, while Victor’s parents (Keith Burkland and Jean Foresman) are straight out of one of the author’s novels. They might all be in Pride and Prejudice. Other fine performances are by Ted Harvey who plays Clerval and who loves Victor, especially when he becomes over-hysterical when caught by the monster; and Kalli Jonsson, who plays the captain as an ego-driven man on the order of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab looking for the great white whale. Graham Cowley makes the most of his two brief scenes as the second-in-command of the captain’s ship.

Special attention must be given to the striking stage design team of John Behrens (Video Designs), Steven Coleman (Set Design), Jon Retsky (Lighting) and Dave Gardner (Technical Director). All have done superb work here. The whole stage gives the feeling of being in the Arctic, and there is even non-toxic mist coming from the stage at the beginning of the production. The stage looks like an ice cave in the Arctic with jagged cuts of ice-looking material on each side, and a place for digital projection in the center. The projections are from models that give a three-dimensional effect. The lighting gives the illusion of the cold Arctic north and the unnatural lighting of the Victor's laboratory. Marjorie Moore has given the actors authentic period costumes, and Chris Paulina's sound is top grade with proper eerie noises and great sound effect of ice breaking up toward the end of the production.

All in all, Monster is being staged for pure entertainment, with engaging performances by everyone and good direction by Bill English. Taken in the context of an old-fashioned melodrama, it’s a provocative production.

Monster runs through March 18th at the SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter Street, between Powell and Mason, San Francisco. For tickets call box office at 415-677-9596, email reservations@sfplayhouse.org or www.ticketweb.com.


Photo: Jessica Hobbs


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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