If the totality of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that empathy is in short supply. Also, that narcissism is often toxic. Jobsite Theatre’s captivating adaptation of “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” is a painful reminder that this is nothing new.
Most of us, however, identify with Boris Karloff’s iconic monster. And while Karloff’s eerie melancholy from the 1931 film is true to Mary Shelley’s tone, he’s not the articulate creature of the novel and has been reduced to a ubiquitous popular culture Halloween mask. So much so, that we don’t generally take Frankenstein seriously.
Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus
Jobsite Theatre “Live Capture”
Through Dec. 3 only
But what’s wonderful here is that the language of Romantic literature is a tsunami that sweeps the audience away on a Gothic journey that won’t let go. Our imaginations are totally engaged. Playwright Jim Helsinger adapts Shelley’s formal prose and its intense poetic diction. The audience has to make some leaps, though, such as when the Creature quotes John Milton when we barely know he’s sentient.
Of course, there’s also a bit of narcissism in a single actor portraying eight characters, both male, female, and a most unsettling asexually born creature made up of spare parts. However, the tools that Giles Davies brings to this venture are on extravagant display; he’s in full command. There are multiple accents and twitches, rolling eyes and bent fingers, ramrod stiff posture and a cumbersome gait. Instantaneous transformations combining a quickly covered head and a jarring octave vocal leap where “he” becomes “she”—while also skipping generations—are seamless.
Davies is blessed with a 19th century face stolen from a Daumier caricature. He’s a gaunt presence with big dark eyes, prominent curved brows, a pointy nose and distinctive ears. His dark, full hair leaves just enough room for a forehead of expressive lines raised on demand. He conjures the Creature simply through scrunching his lips just so, as his whole mouth juts to one side. It’s an evening of unbridled theatricality. Sometimes his omniscient narrator looks you in the eye with arms thrust extravagantly wide. Other times you’re drawn to a commanding voice demanding attention.
The two 45-minute acts clip along thanks to Davies’ protean efforts. It’s a performance of operatic scale; nuance is not the order of the day. But the production demands that we listen to Shelley’s prose and bring our dramatic imagination to the fore as Captain Walton finds Victor Frankenstein pursuing his Creature across the Arctic tundra.
Director Paul J. Potenza has teamed with his designers to create memorable images as a springboard for our collective imaginations. It’s what theater does best. You’re carried aloft like a crowd surfer at a rave. Lighting designer, Jo Averill-Snell, allows Davies to have dialogue with his own huge, monstrous shadow or chillingly echoes the rhythm of a beating heart as the entire stage pulses between darkness and light. Brian M. Smallheer’s set presents a quintet of panels that stretch across space like the gaping maws of hell with white hot cores that flicker upward in red flames fading into darkness; it’s an unsettling image that hints of a fiery apocalyptic denouement. Prometheus, after all, was punished for bringing fire to humanity. There’s a simple table center stage with platform levels that step toward the audience like embracing arms. And a stage right bed which looms large as the story unfolds.
The economy of Katrina Stevenson’s costumes allows Davies to switch characters with ease. A cap and floor length coat define Captain Walton’s epistolary tales. Victor Frankenstein is underneath in a vest and Seinfeld-worthy puffy shirt. The patchwork quilt resembling remnants from a Naugahyde recliner warehouse (which covers a pillow in Act I) bursts forth in Act II. When Davies swirls it like a matador’s cape to cover his body, it becomes a loose-hanging stitched skin, and the horror of the Creature’s scar-covered visage vividly springs to life.
Jobsite’s head honcho, David Jenkins, has braved the battle with publishers, unions, and agents, to create a three-camera, edited “live capture” stream to reflect the production experienced by a socially-distanced audience in the Jaeb, the Straz Center’s two-tiered cabaret space. Indeed, the audible audience response adds to the streamed experience.
You can’t leave this “Frankenstein” untouched. We have only to look to current events to realize that Mary Shelley’s lessons from her two-century old revenge novel still resonate prophetically today. The Creature’s struggle for acceptance is as current as the battles against racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny torn from the headlines. Our entire globe is better off when we care for others, when delusions and narcissism are stripped away and we all embrace empathy to heal our broken world.
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