Review: “Frankenstein”

Leah Casey in the production of Frankenstein.(Photo by Michael Brosilow)


Where: Court Theatre, 5535  S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Dec. 2
Tickets: $50-$74
Phone: 773-753-4472

Theater Critic

It’s tempting to compare the world premiere of Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” at Court Theatre to the Creature that Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel.

Both are stitched together from many disparate parts, then vividly brought to life. But the results are totally different. While the hideous Creature, abandoned by its maker and treated cruelly by the world, brings death and destruction, the multimedia artistic collective’s work coalesces into a fascinating and very lively evening of theater.

If you’re not familiar with Manual Cinema, the name pretty much says it all. The company, founded in 2010 by co-artistic directors Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman (University of Chicago alumni), Julia VanArsdale Miller, and Kyle Vegter, combines shadow puppetry, actors, cinematic techniques, sound design, and live music into movie-like performances that unfold in real time on and around a main screen, allowing viewers to see what goes into the process as well as the finished product.

“Frankenstein” is its most ambitious project so far. Conceived by Dir (once Court Theatre’s dramaturg) and devised by him, Fornace, and Miller, with original music by Kauffman and Vegter, it not only features a very elaborate setup with a plethora of musical instruments (especially percussion), but also tells a tale that goes beyond Shelley’s book to incorporate her biography. Like nesting Russian dolls, it consists of stories within stories within stories designed to illuminate both “Frankenstein” and how and why the author came to write it.

This format can be a bit confusing, particularly at the outset. The evening opens with two women, almost identical except one is dressed in white and one in black, descending the theater aisle steps to the stage and opening the door-like windows of a box to reveal a miniature shadow-puppetry stormy sea with a ship sailing into the Arctic. I’m not sure who the women are supposed to be except that a Q & A in the program mentions a plot line about Mary Shelley (Fornace) and her sister, Fanny Imlay (Miller), which seems to get lost later on. The ship, on the other hand, belongs to Captain Walton, whose letters home to his sister about encountering Frankenstein chasing the Creature form the frame for the novel.

Love, loss, and a dose of gender politics make up the bulk of Shelley’s bio recounted mostly in silhouette with women as the real and puppet Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. In a section that’s arguably a little too drawn out, we learn how the Shelleys were preoccupied with work and play when their baby died and how a rainy-day bet between Percy and Byron as to who could write the better ghost story prompted Mary, who was being ignored, to enter the contest, too.

With chapter titles projected onto the large screen center stage, this segues into her story of Victor Frankenstein (Fornace), including his birth and upbringing by his father Alphonse (Sara Sawicki) and beloved mother Caroline (Leah Casey), his lifelong friendship with and marriage to his adopted sister Elizabeth (Miller), the death of his mother, and the university experiments that haunt him. These sections are done in the style of old silent films with the actors wearing exaggerated makeup and wigs, dialogue projected in script, and background music.

After Frankenstein animates the Creature and abandons him in the university clock tower, the perspective switches to that of the monster, from the moment he blinks his eyes open. We see him in a full range of guises, among them a small three-dimensional puppet that’s a hodge-podge of sewn-together bits and pieces, a shadow puppet with various frightful expressions, and life size (Miller) in a cloak and horribly deformed mask.

Some of the novel’s characters and incidents are left out, but the basic plot remains. The Creature tries to befriend but ends up destroying the old blind man and his family in the forest. He seeks out his creator and demands a mate, only to see her destroyed. This leads him to kill Elizabeth and Frankenstein to chase him to the frozen north, where Captain Walton finds them.

Manual Cinema’s storytelling has been improving from one show to the next, but the real achievement with “Frankenstein” is the ensemble’s remarkable artistic co-ordination and technical acumen. It’s magic.  Credit goes to everyone involved: the creators, the actors, the musicians (Zachary Good, Deidre Huckabay, Lis Kolh, Peter Ferry), puppet designers Dir and Lizi Breit, projection and scenic designer Rasean Davonte Johnson, costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg, lighting designer Claire Chrzan, and sound designers Kauffman and Vegter. The sheer number of thunder storms alone is impressive.

Kauffman and Vegter’s music underscores and enhances the mood of the various segments, but unlike in Manuel Cinema’s previous production, there’s no attempt to write lyrics that contribute to our understanding. This is a plus, because those were mostly unintelligible, whereas Casey’s vocals are vaguely evocative.

I recommend brushing up on Mary Shelley’s book and bio to get the most out of Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein,” but even if you don’t, you’ll appreciate the massive amount of work that went into bringing it so seamlessly to life.