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frankenstein: a paperhouse of madness

andrew templeton

Andrew Templeton is Vancouver-based writer and playwright who's had plays produced in Vancouver and London.

 Dov Mickelson, Tim Machin, Sarah Machin-Gale, Nancy McAlear, Frankenstein Dov Mickelson, Tim Machin, Sarah Machin-Gale, Nancy McAlear, Frankenstein
photo Photomagic
Any adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has to contend with the potency of the original story. The idea of a man so enthralled with his own brilliance that he pushes beyond the bounds of the natural order still resonates because of our unease over genetically “improved” fruit and veg. The horror is realised when man’s unnatural creation comes to life and starts to extract its demands. The central relationship in the Frankenstein myth (and it has achieved that status) is between creator and created. I also wonder if the story, as envisaged by Shelley, represents the fear of childbirth and what happens when the child we create becomes a monster. The horror of Frankenstein’s creation should be bloody and visceral. It should be muddy and dark.

Muddy and dark are the last thing we get with this Catalyst Theatre production. Instead we get a world of white, a world of strange organic shapes that reminded me very much of the drawings of Dr Seuss. The costumes, in particular, are striking with wild hats, eccentrically shaped dresses and bizarre dreadlocks. Paper was somehow involved in the creation of the costumes and set and so everything – and I mean everything – has the texture of crumpled paper. When lit with a rich colour scheme, the costumes look beautiful but somehow they irritated me. They looked too moulded, too constrained and uniform – even the monster is bizarrely made of the same stuff. Perhaps all this rumpled white is meant to put the audience in mind of a paddled cell.

If so, Jonathan Christenson, writer, director and composer wants to take us into the madhouse and the seemingly endless parade of characters we are introduced to (each with their own song) are meant to be inmates. But if everyone is crazy, if the world is a madhouse, then how are Victor Frankenstein (Andrew Kushnir) and his creation (George Szilagyi) any different and, crucially, how does this decision support the central themes of the work? Both are outsiders. They represent the unnatural capacities of man set against natural order. Having these two iconic figures lost amongst the paper lunacy is simply baffling. The only way to make this set up work would be to have the creature appear both sane and beautiful. What we really needed was Brad Pitt in a well-tailored tuxedo. Instead we get another nutter in a paper suit. The only difference is that he’s wearing a cowboy hat and his face is wrapped in bandages.

It’s not just white paper that Victor and his poor creation are lost in; they are also lost within the narrative. The most glaring example is the creation scene. There is none. Victor trots off to university wondering how life is created and why people have to die. He’s spurred into these thoughts by the loss of both parents. Yes, once again a madman is created by childhood trauma. Oprah Winfrey has a lot to answer for. The next thing we know, folk in the university town are singing of disturbing rumours about young Frankenstein. His housekeeper Nancy McAlear – channelling Madeline Khan from Young Frankenstein – keeps them at bay. Next thing you know, Victor creates a monster, with the help of some magical books! In his room! We know there’s a monster because we glimpse a pair of long clawed hands through a gauze screen. A narrator also pops up to tell us. I have to admire Christenson’s courage. Most theatre artists would have focussed on the bloody creation itself. We would have seen Victor consumed with madness as he neared his goal. We would have been drawn in, made complicit, as the creature begins to breathe, to move. Maybe Christenson didn’t want to get blood on the delicate costumes. Instead of all that gruesome nonsense, we get a courtroom scene.

The woman on trial is Victor’s nanny. She stands accused of killing Sweet William, Victor’s adopted brother. Three locals sing lengthy testimonies and, in the interest of fairness, the accused gets to respond to the charges in turn. The court case lasts so long that by the end I was beginning to believe she was guilty. Of course she isn’t. Sweet William was killed by Victor’s monster. We know this because Victor, in any earlier scene, had deduced who the real culprit was. In any event, Victor stands by and looks anguished while his surrogate mother is found guilty. We don’t actually see the hanging, of course, which considering what we had to sit through is a bit of a let down.

The Sweet William murder scene is told again in the second act, this time by the monster with the help of ever present narrators. We don’t see the murder, of course. The monster describes it while William appears upstage behind the gauze curtain. In fact the monster’s whole story, from departing the university town to reunion with Victor years later in the mountains of cling-film, is told in flashback. I stress “told”. The monster tells his story downstage while the characters he encounters appear upstage again behind the gauze of memory. This format is only broken once that I recall when he encounters a blind fiddler, a scene which unfolds in real time with two actors talking to one another. You have no idea how refreshing this moment was.

For some unfathomable reason, Christenson employs a team of narrators throughout. They describe every scene and practically every action, usually in rhyming couplets that feel like watered down Dr Seuss. If Victor looks on in anguish, we’re told about it. I can only assume that Christenson is trying to evoke the feel of storytelling. If he is, then it is deeply ironic because it interferes directly with the natural process of story-telling within a theatre context. The constant telling means there is no tension, no emotional engagement between the characters or audience. It creates a strange sense of stasis so endemic that it actively works against character logic. Not only doesn’t Victor speak up in defence of his nanny, he also stands idly in some other room while his bride is murdered by the monster. One has to wonder not only why Victor is not in the bedchamber on his honeymoon but why he is separated from his love for even a moment when the monster has explicitly threatened to kill her. The monster, for all his murderous ways, is just as bad. He stands by while Victor chokes the monster bride he has been forced to create.

It’s as if Christenson was afraid to deal with the visceral reality implied by the source material. Perhaps this sanitised version is aimed primarily at children. Mind you, most children I know revel in bloody excess. I must also add, as a caveat, that as a playwright I am inherently interested in text. The audience on the night I saw the production seemed enraptured and this was understandable. The design is gorgeous, the performances terrific. The music was forgettable but the singing was strong and committed. This was slick, well-crafted theatre. The setting of an insane asylum made of paper could probably house another story beautifully. It’s just not the house of Frankenstein.

Catalyst Theatre, Frankenstein, writer, director, composer Jonathan Christenson, performed by Nick Green, Andrew Kushnir, Sarah Machin-Gale, Tim Machin, Nancy McAlear, Dov Mickelson, Tracy Penner, George Szilagyi, designer Bretta Gerecke, Choreographer Laura Krewski, lighting associate Kerem Çetinel, sound designer Wade Staples; Vancouver East Cultural Centre, Jan 15 -26; PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts, Jan 16 - Feb 3

Andrew Templeton is Vancouver-based writer and playwright who's had plays produced in Vancouver and London.

RealTime issue #0 pg.

© Andrew Templeton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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