'Frankenstein Revived' by Morris Panych and Music by David Coulter. Based on 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley
Now onstage at Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre
Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann. Foreground: L-R: Marcus Nance as the Creature and Charlie Gallant as Victor Frankenstein. Background: Laura Condlln as Mary Shelley
A daring and risk-taking world premiere adaptation of a classic novel.
Morris Panych’s world-premiere adaptation of the young Mary Shelley’s 1818 science fiction/horror novel becomes a uniquely challenging one to stage. The poet Lord Byron initially encouraged fellow vacationers stuck inside a Lake Geneva villa during a rainy summer vacation to write a ghost story. The young Mary Godwin (soon-to-be wife to Byron) won the contest with this story of the brilliant student and budding scientist Victor Frankenstein, who sought to overstep the power and majesty of natural order by creating life alone and in secret.
Over the years, literary scholars have deemed ‘Frankenstein’ a science fiction and a tale of horror. There’s truth in this statement. It’s a story of poetic exposition juxtaposed with an emotional array of personal feelings.
But what makes this opening night world premiere one to which (borrowing from Arthur Miller) attention must be paid?
Not a word is spoken throughout this engaging production. Instead, it’s told boldly through highly stylized choreographed dance movements that create haunting visual images long after the curtain comes down.
During his university studies, budding scientist and brilliant student Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with Death. He devises a technique to give life to non-living matter. He tests this technique using body parts stolen from corpses in graveyards to build a Creature. Victor gives life to this being through electricity.
Unfortunately, things go awry when Victor becomes shocked by what he has done. The Creature soon sees himself as hideous, as does everyone who comes in contact with him. Scarred by this understanding of the cruelty of human behaviour, the Creature vows to destroy all who mean a great deal to Victor: his wife, Elizabeth, his younger brother, William and his friend, Henry Clerval—even the building of a companion that the Creature demands of Victor will not suffice.
However, Panych’s ‘Frankenstein Revived’ is more than a horror and sci-fi tale.
It becomes a solid visual warning about obsessive and ruthless idealism, which still permeates the twenty-first-century world as we know it today.
In his Director’s Note, Panych dutifully recognizes this production “is a composite of many things…but not made by one person alone. As a creative force we are a collection of essential parts, pieced together by our imagination.”
The human imagination soars to the Avon Theatre rafters on this opening night.
Panych’s fitting tribute respectfully recognizes other invaluable artistic contributions in creating a terrific macabre world onstage. Even the Elements of Nature (excellent work by a most skillfully trained ensemble of performers all dressed in black) underscore the dangers of obsessive and ruthless idealism.
Ken MacDonald’s set and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting designs artfully showcase this world of the macabre. For example, the moon’s orbits are beautifully highlighted throughout the show. These orbit projections reveal how some might have believed human behaviour is strongly affected by this natural process. The striking visual image of a hospital/cadaver gurney brightly spot lit during the pre-show reminds us that all is not well in the world we are about to enter. Jake Rodriquez’s sound designs remain clear throughout. Dana Osborne’s costumes are solid replications from the era.
David Coulter’s Music Direction and composition eerily heighten the building intensity of the suspenseful plot in wondering what’s coming next as the action unfolds. Seeing the gurney and hearing the pre-show music eerily reminds me that one is entering a world where something just does not seem correct.
One of the production highlights is the demanding work of Movement Director Wendy Gorling and Dance Choreographer Stephen Cota. Such meticulous and necessary precision means these actors must remain in tip-top shape.
And they most certainly are.
Nary hands nor feet seem out of place in the Elements ensemble as they become necessary instruments that convey tremendous passion in their onstage fluidity.
Laura Condlln, in her portrayal of Mary Shelley, becomes like a circus ringmaster, controlling and directing the show's events for effect. A writer also controls and directs what will be added to the page to create a specific effect. For example, at the top of the second act, Condlln stands centre stage where, like a ringmaster, she sets the Elements of Nature where she wants them to be. It’s a striking moment to watch this all unfold visually.
As Victor’s younger and mischievous brother William, Garrett McKee nicely brings that wink of youthful play for a few moments. William’s death occurs off-stage. When Victor brings on the young lad’s body, there is complete silence throughout the house at this horrific realization of what has occurred. Kyla Musselman’s Elizabeth, Victor’s loving and devoted wife, is also horrifically taken at the hands of the Creature. Musselman shows her youthful joy at her wedding to Victor, which makes the audience believe there may be hope for happiness for the scientist. Alas, this is not to be as the audience horrifically witnesses the young woman’s murder onstage.
A sense of paternal goodness emanates from Sean Arbuckle as D’Lacy, the old blind man who can only show kindness to the Creature since he cannot see what the being looks like. Devon Michael Brown’s Henry Clerval portrays a genuine friendship with Shelley’s protagonist. However, men can feel as profoundly emotional as women, and losing his friend brings Victor to his wit’s end again.
As the story’s protagonist, Charlie Gallant’s Victor appears visually and youthfully strong as he goes off to pursue his studies. His character arc remains credible as he brings his story of how sad it is to a rightful conclusion.
Marcus Nance’s performance as the Creature is absolute perfection. Nance is wholly grounded in the moment and embodies many feelings and emotions ranging from pity, pathos, regret, and vengeance. His scene with Sean Arbuckle’s D’Lacy heartfully showcases two unique individuals who yearn and recognize in each other how life has scarred them. This moment of personal connection is then woefully thwarted, with more lives lost.
Final Comments: ‘Frankenstein Revived’ becomes an Honours masterclass in performance and movement. Actors must utilize and incorporate their bodies instead of language to tell a story. Audiences participate in learning to read human physicality instead of relying on words.
A new challenge, indeed.
Theatre audiences should always be challenging themselves. It makes attending even more worthwhile.
Is it worthwhile to see ‘Frankenstein Revived’?
Yes, it is. See it.
And another thing: I sat in Row J on the aisle and had a perfect vantage point where I could see the visual images and pictures of Panych and his creative team. However, I could not see the expressions on the faces of the actors as I was too far back. I didn’t need to sit up close as the artists performed what they were supposed to do.
If future audiences like to see the expressions on the actors’ faces, I’d advise sitting closer to the stage. Be aware that you may not capture the overall visual picture presented onstage.
P.S.: As a retired secondary school English teacher, I would endorse seeing the production with students, especially if they study the novel. Seeing the production live would reflect at least one of the Ministry of Education document expectations.
Running time: approximately two hours with one intermission.
‘Frankenstein Revived’ runs until October 28 at the Avon Theatre. For tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call the Box Office at 1-800-567-1600.
FRANKENSTEIN REVIVED by Morris Panych with Music by David Coulter
Based on ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley
Director: Morris Panych
Music Director: David Coulter
Movement Choreographer: Wendy Gorling
Dance Choreographer: Stephen Cota
Set Designer: Ken MacDonald
Costume Designer: Dana Osborne
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Composer: David Coulter
Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez
Performers: Eric Abel, Sean Arbuckle, Carla Bennett, Devon Michael Brown, Laura Condlln, Amanda De Freitas, Mateo G. Torres, Charlie Gallant, Eddie Glen, McKinley Knuckle, Gracie Mack, Ayrin Mackie, Anthony MacPherson, Heather McGuigan, Garrett McKee, Spencer Nicholas McLeod, Kyla Musselman, Marcus Nance, Trevor Patt, Jason Sermonia