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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 27, 2017

Robert Fairchild
Photo by Shirin Tinati

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century is an exceptionally ambitious company, bent on creating theatrical works that combine live performances of classical music, dance, acting, artistic imagery, and rich sound design into a singular and seamless tapestry of storytelling. Last summer, it produced a piece at the Pershing Square Signature Center called Van Gogh's Ear. It was a fascinating study of the creative vision and deteriorating mental health of the artist toward the end of his life. Yet, problematically, the various components never did coalesce into a single entity, with each element simultaneously vying for the audience's attention. Now the company is back at the Signature with a new work titled Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. And while, like its predecessor, its reach exceeds its grasp, this is overall a much stronger production, thanks largely to the compelling presence of former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Tony nominee (for An American In Paris), Robert Fairchild.

Fairchild has choreographed and performs a bravely un-balletic role as Mary Shelley's enduring creation, the monster who is both innocently naïve and dangerous to others, a "fallen angel" as he refers to himself at one point. Fairchild's gives us a remarkable mix of off-kilter lurching, crawling, twisting, and careening movements as he portrays the benighted creature who longs to fit in with human company and yet remains the eternal outcast. As a dance piece, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a masterful work, aided in no small part by Bill Toles's gripping sound design, David Bengali's stormy projections, and the performances by a trio of excellent musicians of works by Liszt, Bach, and Schubert that are effectively in sync with the choreography.

Act I of the two-act, 100-minute production gets off to a rousing start with the "birth" of the monster during a violent thunderstorm. With the assist of Parker Ramsay's soaring organ playing of a Liszt prelude, it is a gloriously gothic moment, as if we were watching a silent horror movie with live accompaniment. This and most of the early scenes allow the company and Eve Wolf, its founder and the playwright, to show us what they can do with the right combination of elements.

As long as the focus is on Fairchild and the music, which includes some beautiful singing by mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann who serves as an ethereal, comforting presence for the monster, the production, directed by Donald T. Sanders, comes closest to fulfilling the company's mission. Few in the audience will be unfamiliar with the story of Frankenstein, and so they will happily follow Fairchild's progress through the highlighted episodes, including the monster's sojourn with the blind musician (Rocco Sisto) and an unhappy act of violence that concludes the first act.

But Eve Wolf has another story she wants us to heed, that of the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. In Mary, Ms. Wolf sees a parallel story as dark as that of the monster, about a woman whose own mother died giving birth to her, who has lost three children of her own, and whose ambitions as a writer are dismissed as trivial and inadequate by her husband, the poet Percy Shelley.

The problem is, the production simply cannot find the right balance between these two stories, one a towering work of fiction, the other a sadly earth-bound biographical narrative. There is simply not enough "gothic" to sustain both, and the overuse of excerpts from Mary Shelley's diaries and correspondence weighs things down far too much, especially in Act II. It also doesn't help that both Mia Vallet as Mary and Paul Wesley as her husband speak in contemporary cadences instead of commanding the kind of heightened language that would more closely align with the tale of the monster.

All told, the Ensemble for the Romantic Century and Eve Wolf have attempted to cover too many bases. Conceptually, they've got amazing potential for bringing together so many different art forms, but they've got their work cut out for them in striving for the right balance. They will have another shot in May, when they bring their production of Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart to the Signature. Meanwhile, there is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with its grand music (the other two musicians are Steven Lin on piano and Kemp Jernigan on oboe, while Peter Ramsay plays the harpsichord as well as the organ), and, of course, Mr. Fairchild's dazzling choreography and dancing.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Through January 7
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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