Zaden Boeckman in Frankenstein. Photo: J. Tyler Franklin
By Danielle Mohlman
Based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Heather Burns & Meg Caudill
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Perhaps Commonwealth Theatre Center missed an opportunity not to stage this adaptation of a classic horror story in October when audiences are looking for scary stuff. Or perhaps there was already a surplus of such options and better not to get lost in the crowd. This Frankenstein is now the only spooky game in town.
I prefer to think that directors Heather Burns and Meg Caudil see Danielle Mohlman’s adaptation as something apart from a parade of holiday entertainments, and that is a fair statement. Anyone expecting to see lightning bolts and a stitched-together, grunting, behemoth chased by pitchforks and torches will be disappointed by this cerebral, feminist fantasy that imagines what was in Mary Shelley’s heart and mind that inspired Frankenstein.
The text is a heady exploration of identity and the nature of creation, a blurring of the fiction and reality of giving a character life. Shelley subtitled her book, “The Modern Prometheus”, and playwright Mohlman ponders the act of writing as a parallel to that myth, which questions the power of giving life. She emphasizes new life arriving and being snuffed out prematurely and gives added depth and resonance to the classic understanding of the monster’s actions morally being an extension of Victor Frankenstein. So instead of “Victor is the Monster”, here “Mary Shelley is the Monster.”
There are moments of violence rendered with restraint but the “horror” of the story, at least in the terms we have come to expect, is muted. It feels like Mohlman is interested in the underlying horror of Western culture and political norms and the straitjacketed roles afforded to women. While there are men here, this Frankenstein is mostly about the women.
That is so provocative because it calls attention to the very idea that what popular culture has represented as the most masculine and narcissistic story was, in truth, a woman’s commentary on those concepts. Conventional wisdom on the subject usually only goes back to Boris Karloff. However, the even more well-regarded The Bride of Frankenstein depicts a coquettish Mary Shelley teasing her friends with her new creation.
When reviewing student performances, I have found myself using a rubrik by which I ascertain whether a young actor is listening for a cue or connecting to their scene partner more organically. I don’t know if there is a fair way to critique students unless you have watched them work over time. In terms of achieving a naturalistic exchange of dialogue, Trace Henderson is a forceful Percy Shelley, while Roman Scott and Nate Brantley nicely build a complex relationship as Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval.
The most important relationship is between Mary Shelley (Zaden Boeckman) and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (Jess Burke), but it is built on distance and death so it is a curious dynamic, in truth a ghost story. Both actors are tall and have a substantial presence and that physicality seems crucial in their pairing, and Boeckman uses her deep voice to good effect in navigating the unique challenge of their dual roles.
The design work is spare, with side stages and the effective use of a translucent scrim to separate the action. Lindsay Chamberlin’s costumes are period-true and particularly evocative for the female characters, although there are some curious fittings for the men that I don’t know if I would entirely attribute to a statement about gender politics.
Mohlman structures her story, and it is arguably more Mohlman’s than Shelley’s, around the same plot points, but her Creature is remarkably articulate and thoughtful, full of mood and portent that makes this Frankenstein entirely unlike any other. I sensed confusion in the audience, but that is to be expected when stripping almost every recognizable trope from a classic. Still, there is discovery available here, and you can be sure you will leave this production thinking very differently about the story than when you came in.
Featuring Zaylie Barber, Zaden Boeckman, Nate Brantley, Jess Burke, Sylvia Buchenberger, Kaileigh Chesmn, Lincoln Chesman, Anya Cullen, Kaya Grass, Trace Henderson, Ella Kozoll, Emma Morris, Cora Neat, Ray Raisor, Stuart Reynolds, & Roman Scott
November 10, 11, 17, & 18 @ 7:30 pm
November 18 @ 2:00 pm
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.