Where: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Nov. 17
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If you saw the National Theatre Live’s 2011 filmed version of Nick Dear’s adaptation of “Frankenstein” when it was here several years ago – or the Oct. 22 and 29 reprise at a few local movie theaters – you’ll know that it brings Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel to life using an unusual theatrical device. Two actors alternate in the roles of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Creature.
In the case of the National Theatre, they were Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. At Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, which is inaugurating its new space at Theater Wit, the honors go to artistic director Nick Sandys and core ensemble member Greg Matthew Anderson.
I saw the 90-plus minute one act when Sandys was the Creature, and his performance blew me away. From the opening blackouts as the naked, scarred, new-born Creature tries to break free of a sheer-white sack that conjures both a placenta and a shroud to the final vision of him locked in an eternal struggle with his creator, Sandys arouses a complicated set of emotions ranging from empathy to horror. Besides a formidable ability to convey the Creature’s learning curve from inarticulate grunting to educated discourse (including quoting Milton’s “Paradise Lost”), he has natural grace and agility that belie his grotesque appearance and are riveting to watch even when he is doing terrible things.
And, of course, the Creature does do terrible things – in response to how he’s treated, at least at first. Shunned, beaten, and met with meanness wherever he goes, he finds temporary respite only with De Lacey (Frank Nall), an old blind man who teaches him to read and ask the big questions about life. But even that ends badly, and increasingly vengeful, desperate, lonely, and confused about how he’s feeling, he becomes determined to track down Dr. Frankenstein and find out why he was created and abandoned.
While the first half of the play belongs to the Creature, the second half focuses as much on Dr. Frankenstein and his relationship to his creation. The doctor appears only once in early scenes, recoiling and running away when approached. However, Anderson’s Frankenstein is a haunted man by the time the Creature catches up with him in Geneva. Nervous, wild-eyed, and obsessed with his “work,” he spends his days indoors at his books, ignoring his fiance Elizabeth (Eliza Stoughton), his younger brother William (Zachary Scott Fewkes the night I saw the show), and his father (Nall).
The Creature gets Frankenstein’s attention the only way he knows how: with an act of extreme cruelty. After that, the doctor strikes a bargain with him, driven by his growing megalomania over his god-like ability to create life, even though Elizabeth points out that there’s an easier, natural way to do it. Retreating to a remote part of Scotland, he sets about fashioning a bride for the Creature from dead bodies, but when a ghost asks him questions he should have asked himself, he breaks his word and, satisfied that he can make a beautiful woman, destroys her.
The enraged Creature retaliates, and the betrayals and bodies pile up. Frankenstein heads to the frozen north in hot pursuit of the murderous Creature, and we get to ponder which one is the real monster – and perhaps to conclude that they’re really the same, which is one reason why the dual casting makes perfect sense.
Or maybe we, as a society, are the monsters because of our lack of understanding and compassion for those who are different. That’s just one of the issues the play addresses, along with scientific responsibility, the relative roles of nature and nurture, parental neglect, and the meaning of good and evil. It’s often billed as a horror story or early science fiction but is as much metaphysical speculation or a philosophical examination of human nature.
At Remy Bumppo, the stunning staging helps talented director Ian Frank and his top-notch ensemble . Joe Schermoly’s white-and-black set features a jagged horizontal crack across the back that widens with each atrocity, resembling mountains, lakes, and sky as needed. Mike Durst’s stark lighting design and Christopher Kriz’s sound design and original music – augmented by Hai-Ting Chinn’s eerie vocals – add layers of atmospheric mystery. Kristy Leigh Hall’s costumes are perfectly apropos, and whoever did the Creature’s makeup (not credited in the program) deserves a gold star.
So many theaters are celebrating the 200th anniversary of “Frankenstein” this season – including Court Theatre – that I don’t know if I’ll get back to Remy Bumppo to see Sandys as the doctor and Anderson as the Creature. But I’m not sure I want to, because I can’t imagine a Creature as compelling as Sandys.