James F. W. Thompson’s adaptation of Frankenstein bills itself as being a faithful re-telling of Mary Shelley’s philosophical horror novel (subtitled: Or the Modern Prometheus)and it accomplishes that goal and a whole lot more.
As a Halloween theatrical treat, it even surpasses the Tales from the Bottom of the Well series that inaugurated the local tradition of staging spooky plays at the end of October.
Thompson has stripped the cast down to four actors, some doubling or tripling in various roles, and retained the story within a story within a story frame of Shelley’s original narrative. The play zips along at a lightning pace (literally in some places), employs the high-strung Romantic diction of the nearly 200 year old novel, but adds the occasional dash of contemporary humour to keep its audience engaged.
What stands out from Thompson’s adaptation is how prescient the 18 year old first time novelist was in foreseeing the inevitable moral problems created by the discoveries of scientific inquiry. Two centuries later, with genetically modified plants and animals all around us, duly patented and trademarked, we have yet to have anything like a serious public discussion of their social and ethical consequences.
Does anyone not know the story? Frankenstein, a young Swiss student, grieving over the death of his mother, brings together the forces of alchemy and science to unmask the secret of the creation of life. Building a barely human creature from the offal of cemeteries, Frankenstein is disgusted by the hideousness of his own creation and abandons it. The Creature feels the sting of his maker’s rejection in his soul and resolves to make Frankenstein feel his pain.
The novel is basically three first person narratives: polar explorer Captain Robert Walton who rescues Frankenstein from the Arctic ice floes; Frankenstein who tells Walton his fantastic, tragic tale; and the Creature who, unlike the grunting ogre of most movie adaptations, is articulate and full of deep feeling (like a really ugly Lord Byron).
Besides writing the script and directing, Thompson also plays the Creature and gives one of the best performances of his acting career. Best known as an unfailingly funny comedic actor, Thompson captures the pathos and rage of his character and, even while performing horrendous acts of retribution, retains the audience’s sympathy.
Joel Inglis, as Frankenstein, had more than a few stage nerves on the opening night performance, a perfectly understandable condition given it is his first acting role and it is a formidable one for even the most seasoned actor. He nevertheless captured the arrogance and self-centered qualities of the reckless scientist. As he grows more comfortable with his role, his performance will surely deepen even further.
Jenn Tubrett played a variety of roles: Frankenstein’s mother, his governess, his fiancé, and his best male friend, and, as usual, excelled in all of them. With a slight change in gesture and voice (and no change in costume), she created complete and individualized characters. With her talents available, needing more actors is superfluous.
Erin Thompson added much needed comedy as the stalwart Walton and stood in as spokesperson for the skeptical audience as Frankenstein unwound his tale. She could also underscore the dramatic moments of the play with a single look of horror.
As director (along with Jason Burke), Thompson used the tiny altar/stage of St. Patrick’s Church Museum to full advantage: it never felt cramped or confined. The stark whitewashed walls in fact helped the audience imagine the various changes in locales from city to aristocratic estate to lonely Orkney island to howling ice field. Beginning the play with the full cast on stage was a brilliant stroke: the Creature stood with his back to the audience for the long first section of the play which only ratcheted up the tension as the audience waited for their first look at him. It also allowed Thompson to voice act some other minor characters. The lighting and sound effects–operated by Burke and Gena DiFlavio–were effective and eloquently completed the horror effect.
Frankenstein is a co-production of The Dead Puppets Society and the Old Sydney Society and has two more performances left in its run: Friday, October 24, and Saturday, October 25, at 7 pm both nights. Admission is $15 at the door.