Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Combustible Company's play Monster Heart, written by artistic director Kym Longhi (who also directs this production) with further development by the acting ensemble, is a fresh–and eerily beautiful–take on the Frankenstein tale. It weaves together two stories that are closely related. There is the well-known tale of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, driven to exercise control over life in response to the death of his dear mother by cobbling together harvested body parts to create a new life–which takes the form of a monster. This is paired with the story of the novel's creation by Mary Shelley, a mere eighteen years old at the time and embroiled in an affair with heralded romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelly. Mary's mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist writer; her father was William Goodwin, a philosopher and novelist considered one of the first modern proponents of anarchism. Both profoundly affected her, even though her mother died shortly after her birth, leaving Mary to be raised primarily by her father. Little wonder that the child of this union flaunted conventionality in her life with Shelly, whom she later married, and authored a novel that railed against the dangers of enlightenment-age science and rationality.
The play pivots between the two narratives, making their pairing seem inevitable, and the connection between Mary Shelley and the fictional monster she dreamt up seems to be a meeting of hearts. Each scene is introduced with a title projected on the real wall of the stage, often with snippets of text and with dates. This proves to be helpful in following the shifts between the two narrative streams and movements back in time to present Mary's origins. Sometimes there are lines taken from William Goodwin or Mary Wollstonecraft, framing the effect Mary's parentage had on her.
Monster Heart is conceived as something of dream, with the cast entering in slow, ballet movement, as if underwater. There is a minimum of spoken dialogue. Some of it spoken by Mary from a writing table at stage left, reading aloud from letters or diary entries that contain the outline of her life. Much of the narrative is provided by way of the actors' movement, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in larger groupings, often creating imagery that is as beautiful as it is ingenious, and at times heartbreaking, while at other times quite comical. Two webbed matrices hang on either side of the stage that allow action to sometimes move vertically as well as horizontally, with actors climbing up or swinging upon the supple rungs.
On opening night, Seth Campbell, one of the seven ensemble members, was out due to illness. As there are no understudies, the company gathered before the play began and made adjustments to allow Campbell's parts to be absorbed by the other six actors. I only found this out after the play, and would never have thought there was a cast member missing had there not been seven names in the program, as opposed to the six I saw on stage. Hopefully, all seven were able to appear in subsequent performances, but the fact that the adjustments were made so seamlessly speaks to the intense collaboration among ensemble members and the fluidity of presentation in this piece that makes the whole much greater than the individual parts.
That said, the actors do phenomenal work individually, as well as collectively. Erik Hoover is exquisite in the roles of Percy, Frankenstein, and the monster–his head covered in a fantastic mask designed by Longhi, grotesque and yet truly a work of art. Julianna Drajko seems to draw inspiration from the spirit of Mary Shelley herself, portraying Mary, Frankenstein, and a second monster–the mate the first monster demands be created so that he not be condemned to a life of abject rejection and loneliness. Hoover and Drajko work beautifully together, embodying Mary and Percy's desire, in contrast to the fierce exchanges between Frankenstein and his monster.
In addition to playing Shelley's first wife Harriet, whom he abandons for Mary, Joni Griffith provides musical accompaniment on violin and a twanging crosscut saw. Griffith composed the evocative musical settings and vocal arrangements for a number of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poems that offer commentary on the unspooling narrative, adding immeasurably to the moodiness of the piece. The other actors–Nick Miller as Goodwin, Anna Pladson as Mary Wollstonecraft, and Madeline Wall as Claire Claremont, Mary's step-sister–each meld seamlessly into the physicality that heaves through the production.
Aside from those hanging matrices and the writing table mentioned, there is little in the way of a set, but video images created by Jim Peitzman do an astonishing job of illustrating the setting and emotional atmosphere of each scene. Southern Theater's proscenium arch, with its sense of faded grandeur, provides a perfect frame for these images. Karin Olson's lighting dovetails in expert precision with the video imagery, along with Jacob Davis's sound design. Kasey Helmstead's costumes have a period sense, with skirts worn by the women that seem pieced together from random scraps, much as the monsters are pieced together from random body parts. The overall effect is a complete immersion of the senses, with light, sound, moving image, dialogue, music, and physical movement coming together to create the experience that is Monster Heart.
We are reminded that the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein did not spring to life either good or bad, but as a force seeking his place in the world. The harm he does is not in his innate nature, but a response to being rejected by all who see him and the absence of any place of belonging. He cries out, "Who are my friends? Where are my relations?," and we know he is not evil, but wounded. The monster is in search of his place, hoping to connect through love, but when love doesn't come to him, he will connect through fear. Mary Shelley too sought connection through love, pushing ahead through heartbreaking losses. The play leaves us with the question, "What is in the heart of a monster?"
Monster Heart, a production of Combustible Company, runs through March 5, 2022, at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: general admission $28.00, economic accessibility $15.00. For performance schedule and tickets go to www.southerntheater.org. For information about the play and Combustible Company, visit CombustibleCompany.org.
Playwright: Kym Longhi, developed by the ensemble; Composer: Joni Griffith; Director: Kym Longhi; Costume and Prop Design: Kasey Helmstead; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Jacob Davis; Video Design: Jim Peitzman; Mask Design: Kym Longhi; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Mel Fellows; Assistant Directors: Rachel Deng and Mariabella Sorini; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie McLane.
Cast: Seth Campbell (Byron/ensemble), Julianna Drajko (Mary/Frankenstein/Creature), Joni Griffith (Harriet/Shelley/ensemble), Erik Hoover (Percy/Frankenstein/Creature), Nick Miller (Goodwin/ensemble), Anna Pladson (Mary Wollstonecraft/ensemble), Madeline Wall (Claire Claremont/ensemble).