Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Frankenstein
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Steel Magnolias, Annie, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, and The 1940's Radio Hour


Jesse James Kamps and Joshua Murphy
Photo by Laura Durant
Almost exactly two hundred years ago, a young woman named Mary Shelley created one of the classics of gothic horror with her masterpiece of literature, "Frankenstein." That novel has been adapted into numerous movies, TV shows, musicals and plays, with the most famous being the classic 1931 motion picture starring Boris Karloff. Quinn Mattfeld, one of Southwest Shakespeare Company's new co-Producing Artistic Directors, has adapted his own dramatization of this classic story of a man who creates a living monster from pieces of corpses which sticks fairly close to Shelley's original work. While it isn't entirely successful, with an exceptional cast and some impressive creative aspects it does amount to an interesting study of the impact of a thoughtless creator playing God and also a lovely homage to Shelley's original work.

Shelley's novel focuses on the young Victor Frankenstein and his desire to reanimate and recreate life from the dead. Like Jeffrey Hatcher's 2008 play Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, which sticks fairly close to another classic piece of gothic literature and which just ended a run at TheaterWorks in Peoria, Mattfeld uses the narrative framework of the novel of Shelley's work and jettisons just about all that was added to the famous Universal 1931 film. That decision may be slightly disappointing for anyone unfamiliar with Shelley's novel or who is a fan of the film and its elaborate laboratory scenes where the creature is brought to life, since the creation of the monster isn't even scene in this adaptation. However, it does paint a compassionate picture of both Victor and the Creature and gives much insight into their plights.

Shelley's original work used flashbacks, letters and narration by three individuals—Victor, the Creature and Captain Walton, an explorer who encounters the two at the North Pole—to tell the story of Victor's obsession with reanimating life and the resulting impact of those desires on his creation. Mattfeld's adaptation drops Walton completely from the narrative and centers act one on Victor's story and the majority of act two on the Creature's tale, which works well to portray the dilemmas of both and give almost equal time to these two very intriguing characters. Mattfeld also includes a fair amount of narration to fill in numerous plot points along with introspective commentary that provides a fairly thorough understanding of the thoughts and feelings of both men.

While Shelley quoted Milton's "Paradise Lost" in her manuscript, Mattfeld uses Shakespeare as a thread for both a connection between Victor and his fiancée Elizabeth, who is a big fan of the Bard, and also as a way for the Creature to learn and understand how to speak. That change works quite well to not only provide familiar texts and lines from Shakespeare plays that most audience members will be knowledgeable of but also as a tie directly to Southwest Shakespeare.

There is much to admire in Mattfeld's script though also a few shortcomings. While the cuts Mattfeld made from Shelley's novel make sense and work well to shorten the story and tighten the plot, act one is still a bit plodding, long and talkative. Where Shelley's use of narrative works well in novel form to give descriptive details and information, on the stage, extended narration can come across as a writer's lazy shortcut to tell an audience what happened instead of actually showing it to us. That, unfortunately, happens several times here. There is also some repetition in portraying Victor's obsessive nature that pads out the first act. Eliminating or shortening some of these bits would speed up the pace of the first act where they often threaten to derail the urgency in Victor's desire to create life. However, in act two these narrative moments are very effective, as they allow the Creature to let us know his inner thoughts and feelings before he has mastered the ability to speak them. Also, since there is no elaborate set design or scenic elements beyond the large, static Elizabethan façade and several tables which are moved about to shift locales, we are shortchanged from seeing an elaborate mad scientist set. By not including the infamous film scenes where the Creature comes to life, the plot becomes less about the mechanics of the creation and instead wisely focuses, just like Shelley's novel, on the confrontation between Creator and Creation. Also, the use of flashbacks works quite well as does the use of shifts in time between the acts.

The cast is exceptional. Jesse James Kamps evokes the right combination of obsession and drive along with a secretive nature that what he is doing is wrong but with a firm sense of urgency to prove he has the ability to carry his ideas out. Victor both fears and is ashamed of his creation, and Kamps' line delivery and facial expressions expertly portray those conflicted views. Joshua Murphy infuses the Creature with empathy along with a heightened amount of sympathy for what Victor has inflicted on him. When Murphy says "I'm more than what I appear," it is heartbreaking and illuminates the idea that, while the Creature has literally been turned into a monster in so many other adaptations of this story, in the original literary form he was far from one.

In the supporting cast, all of whom expertly play multiple parts, Kim Stephenson Smith infuses a vibrancy and high level of intelligence into Elizabeth. As De Lacey, the blind man the Creature befriends, Doug Waldo is compassionate and caring. Dalton Davis is engaging as Clerval, Victor's only real friend, and Bonnie Beus Romney instills the part of a convicted woman with grace. With a keen ear for accents, Beau Heckman creates several unique characters, and Ryan L. Jenkins and Seth Scott portray the other members of the De Lacey family with appropriate shades of love and fear.

Director Patrick Walsh provides the production with a fast pace in the first act, which ties to Victor's level of urgency in carrying out his experiment, and slows the pace in act two, which lets the piece breath and allows for a sense of serenity in the moments with the Creature and De Lacey. Walsh also uses the choreographed movement of the ensemble fairly well to add a theatricality to the production (the underwater scene with Kamps and the ensemble holding umbrellas is stunning in its theatrical simplicity and beauty), along with Stacey Walston's lighting, which is infused with shadows and a depth of colors, and the exceptional sound design from Peter Bish that deliver cracks of thunder and derive an appropriately moody and atmospheric sense along with a few instances of true tension and terror. Kristen Peterson's static set design is fine, though the continual movement of several large and seemingly heavy tables does get a bit distracting at times. Maci Cae Hosler's costumes are full of rich, detailed fabrics, and Mary Townsend's realistic make-up design for the Creature appears to have fresh blood congealed around the dozens of stitches on the his face.

While fans of the many film versions may be slightly disappointed in how this adaptation of Frankenstein doesn't include any of the famous scarier moments, Southwest Shakespeare Company's production has talented creative aspects and a very good cast who derive rich characters in this adaptation that is faithful to Shelley's original novel.

Slight spoiler alert: the final moment when the creation helps sooth the creator and where the roles somewhat reverse is filled with poignancy and a moment that forever ties the two together. It also makes you ponder which character is the real "monster."

Southwest Shakespeare Company's Frankenstein, through November 10, 2018, at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa AZ. Tickets can be purchased at swshakespeare.org or by calling 480-644-6500

Director: Patrick Walsh
Scenic Designer: Kristen Peterson
Costume Designer: Maci Cae Hosler
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Hair and Make-Up Designer: Mary Townsend
Properties Designers: Stacey Walston
Fight Choreographer: Keath Hall
Stage Manager: Marissa Becket

Cast:
Victor: Jesse James Kamps
Creature: Joshua Murphy
Elizabeth/Victor's Mother/Female Creature: Kim Stephenson Smith
Henry Clerval/Ensemble: Dalton Davis
Professor Krempe/Grave Digger 1: Beau Heckman
Professor Waldman/DeLacey/Policeman/Ensemble: Doug Waldo
Mary/Student 1/Ensemble: Bonnie Beus Romney
Grace/Earnest/Ensemble: Bethany Baca
Drunken Woman/Grave Digger 2: Kellyn Masters
Agatha/Ensemble: Ryan L. Jenkins
Felix/Kitchen Servant/Ensemble: Seth Scott
William/Ensemble: Melissa Toomey


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