Without firm skeleton, confusion and unfocused choices persist
The Hypocrites present:
reviewed by Barry Eitel
From the moment the audience enters the MCA stage for The Hypocrites’ rendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapter/director Sean Graney makes it clear that this production is enamored with the idea of Frankenstein. On one wall, the famous 1931 film version of the story is projected. The opposite wall is plastered with the pages torn from a couple copies of the novel. In adapting the book for the stage, Graney collides a handful of sources together, creating his own monster. Shelley’s novel provides the heart and mind, but other sections are lanced from Macbeth, Faust, and ideas from inventors like Oppenheimer and Edison. The finished creature, though, chooses riffing on themes over delving into character or plot. Without a firm skeleton, the production sinks into confusion and unfocused choices.
Graney’s adaptation plays heavily with Shelley’s original (which she wrote when she was 19). The sprawling novel is condensed into a four-character piece, focusing heavily on the monster’s (Matt Kahler) desire for a wife. Paralleling the creature’s search for companionship is the engagement of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) to his sister, Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz). Graney’s script could use more explication; although powerfully presented, the incestuous relationship is not deeply explored. This lack of detail flaws many aspects of the story—the characters seem more like symbols than believable people (or daemons). Because it is difficult to connect to the characters, the element of tragedy is excised. It also stifles the themes this production tries to shout out so loudly.
It doesn’t help that Graney’s staging sometimes adds to the confusion inherent in the script. Like most Hypocrite shows, all aspects of Frankenstein are beautifully designed. Bloodied baby doll parts hang from the grid, and the space is filled with staticky old-school televisions. Some of these choices are pretty hard to decipher. I still can’t figure out how performing the play in front of the film version enlightens the text. It felt like the play wanted to be far more self-reverential than it was. Even though the audience is confronted by different versions of Frankenstein on all fronts, the actors only reference the film a handful of times. Viktor pulls out a hard copy of Shelley’s original, but this is utilized even less. The design celebrates the fact that in the 200 years since Frankenstein was first published there have been a myriad of takes on the story; the script and staging fail to be as self-aware. This disconnect between design and performance drags down the production.
Brynes’ representation of the famous doctor rightly portrays the passion of a man playing at God. However, he can’t figure out how to layer Viktor quite right, and the full impact of his gradual ruination is glossed over. As Dr. Frankenstein’s sister/bride-to-be, Stoltz is motherly and soft. It would be nice to see more of Elizabeth; although Stoltz is pretty clear, the tract is still hard to follow. Jessie Fisher is sweetly innocent as the Strange Girl, a character created by Graney. The richest performance in the bunch, though, comes from Kahler as the famous monster. His poetical musings on death, creation, and loneliness are incredibly poignant considering he looks like an abomination for most of the show. His moving philosophizing is contrasted sharply by his propensity for extreme violence, reminding us, after all, that this show was intended for the Halloween season. Probably the best scene in the show is when the Girl is mercilessly beaten by Frankenstein’s creation.
The promenade style that Graney has developed over the years falls short here. While in certain spaces the intermingling of actors and audience is enlightening (like last year’s Edward II at Chicago Shakes), here the stage is filled with too many people and key moments are lost in the crowd.
Graney’s adaptation definitely has potential. Workshopping the piece would do it a lot of good, strengthening the plot to match the powerful themes. In its current form, though, it is hard to sew all the pieces together into a cohesive beast.
Photos by Paul Metreyeon
Adaptor/Director: Sean Graney
Music: Kevin O’Donnell
Lyrics: Sean Graney
Cast: John Byrnes, Jessie Fisher, Matt Kahler, Stacy Stoltz
Lighting: Jared Moore
Sound: Mikhail Fiksel
Set: Tom Burch
Video Projections: Mike Tutaj
Costumes: Meghan Raham
Fight Choreography: Matt Hawkins