With his stage adaptation of "Frankenstein," a work titled "Monster," Neal Bell pares and re-shapes a classic story of scientific and ethical horrors, creating a subtext of repressed sexual yearning while sharpening--and moving beyond--Shelley’s existential themes. While the play retains the novel’s core questions about a flawed creator and the rage of his neglected handiwork, Bell also shines a light on a problem that’s just as troubling: How the flaws of the creator are reflected and magnified in his creation, and how the two mirror one another.
In Shelley’s novel, the creature (John Zdrojeski) brought to life by Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Michael Kaye) is no lumbering, mute aberration; rather, he’s lithe, eloquent, and intelligent, not simply a product from a laboratory but an individual in his own right. The "monster" is disfigured, necrotic and violent, but his nature is fully human; that is to say, the creature might torment the man who made him, and he might kill the innocent, but it’s not because he’s any more evil or malicious than anyone else. He’s just really pissed off and hasn’t had the benefit of moral guidance.
Moreover, the monster’s rage and pain spring from loneliness; he’s been abandoned, and he has no helpmeet in life, meaning, in essence, that he needs a bride. What’s monstrous is not the creature’s nature, but rather how a creator who summons him to life and then refuses to follow through on his obligations deprives him of those things. This play has plenty to say about the virtues of good parenting, but that’s far from its only concern.
The story is often seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of playing God, and in an age of genetically modified crops (and the corporations who create them--recklessly, some argue) that’s a point well worth taking. On a larger scale, however, Shelley’s novel, and this play, are also about the perennial question of humanity’s relationship with God, or with random chance--whichever mysterious, putatively omnipresent, and yet incomprehensible force one might choose to believe is responsible for our existence. A central question to life is its purpose, but even deeper than that is a need to create a purpose if none is to be readily found. As any gay couple could probably attest, being deprived of companionship is in itself a monstrously cruel thing; in the absence of God, we do tend to find meaning in the deep connections we make with others. Deny a man (or a woman) this simple and essential facet of human nature, and you certainly do run the risk of creating a monster.
As a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with an absentee creator, Bell’s version of the story is especially piquant. Victor Frankenstein is willing to inflict suffering and death on others in a quest to ease his own terror of mortality. He can communicate with domestic animals (or at least he thinks he can), and to hear him argue with the family cat about the overriding need for vivisection in the name of science is a chilling thing. Is Frankenstein insane? He certainly seems sociopathic: As is often the case with pyschos, he escalates his outrages, progressing from animals to humans. But the path of his mania stops short of homicide; rather, Frankenstein carves up corpses and stitches their parts together into a new person, a person he brings to life with a force from heaven itself--the force of lightning.
But in literary tradition, stealing fire from the gods is never a good idea, and if there’s any reason why man should not play God it lies with the risk of instilling our own racial deficiencies and perversions into our creations. Bell summarizes this neatly when he gives the monster a line of dialogue Mary Shelley would never have dreamed of writing for him: Why, the monster demands at one point, does he get a spontaneous erection when he’s carrying out lethal acts of violence?
The link between sex and death is present throughout the play, creating a vivid and unrelenting galvanic current. A servant (Cloteal L. Horn) throws herself at Frankenstein in his basement laboratory--only to be fondled, and later framed for murder, by the creature. A lifelong friend of the scientist (Tim Spears) has an erotic dream about a same-sex kiss, only for that kiss to be realized, with fatal brutality, in real life. Frankenstein’s obsession with flesh--how to shape it, how to animate it--is inherently erotic, as he yearns to master the "spark" that will bring warmth and life to the body he’s built. Is he looking to conquer more than death? Is he looking to overcome his own loneliness? Is he forming a creation to nurture, in some strange echo of parenting, or does he view the monster as a tailor-made life partner? (And what’s with the virginal, and ultimately unfulfilled, love between himself and his beautiful cousin Elizabeth (Britian Seibert)?)
The fact that the monster’s first hours of life show him to be essentially childlike, at which point the scientist strands him in the woods (a common fate for unwanted infants in the literature of bygone times), suggests the latter; Frankenstein’s passion for the creation of life seems to stop short at guiding and nurturing a newly created being. He seems to want a fully formed individual right out the box, as it were. While it can be argued that all procreation is biologically selfish, Frankenstein’s creation of new life seems to be psychologically (perhaps psychotically) selfish as well. If art, especially enduring art, speaks to our universal subconscious desires and impulses, what does this element of the story suggest about our thoughts and suspicions concerning our own creator?
The Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP)’s production of Bell’s adaptation takes this charged material and delivers it with high voltage. The staging and performances are dynamic; the cast is physically lively and their interactions verge on the sensuous. There are moments when the charge drops slightly and the cast seem to try to make up for it by resorting to yelling, which never really works, but those moments are the exception. Generally speaking, this is a taut, vibrant, even volatile production.
The play is presented in a rectangular space as a theater in the round; this lends the performance immediacy and intimacy. But there’s a sinister air about the space as well, given the semi-transparent containers suspended here and there, within which can be seen murky outlines. We’ve clearly entered Frankenstein’s lair, and these specimen jars contain not only his raw materials but his dark, driven thoughts and his frightful passions as well. This is a hair-raising production, and director Jim Petosa keeps the dial set to maximum power.