Sunday, January 17, 2016

Frankenstein’s Wake, Cleveland Public Theatre

Say the name Frankenstein to anyone, and they smile and wait for the joke. That’s because this monster has become a cartoon in our culture, appropriate for Broadway musical parodies and Halloween costumes, but not much more.

However, if you peer more carefully into the story by novelist Mary Shelley of the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature he created in a lab, it’s a whole different kettle of neck bolts. Indeed, the story of Frankenstein is breathtakingly and immediately relevant to our world today.

In Frankenstein’s Wake, a new restaging now at Cleveland Public Theatre, Holsinger and Bobgan use many of Shelley’s own words, along with those of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Isaac Newton, to convey the torment of a hugely empathetic “daemon” who only seeks acceptance. But due to its unusual appearance, it is rejected and demonized to the point where it seeks violent retribution.  Surprisingly, this story is even more relevant now than when co-creators and co-designers Holly Holsinger and Raymond Bobgan trotted out an earlier version in 1997.

Frankenstein’s creation, animated from lifeless matter, was never a low-IQ, natural born killer. He instead was intelligent, aware, and had noble qualities that were perverted by the insensitivity--or stupidity, or fear--of society. (That goes double for his own creator, since Victor was appalled by what he succeeded in bringing to life.) You can go ahead and apply that as an analogy for any of the conflicts going on in the world today, including the ones inside your head.

In this elegantly constructed 65-minute piece, Holsinger and Bobgan invite you to immerse yourself in the poetic words of Shelley and her contemporaries. Even though there is precious little action, and even if it's hard at times to keep up with the density of the language, the themes at work can ignite fireworks in your mind.

As the only performer, Holsinger uses her supple voice and gloriously specific, intention-driven movement to captivate the audience. Occupying a stage with two long tables, a couple chairs and a small collection of props, Holsinger takes on various personae. These include Captain Robert Walton who encountered a nearly frozen and emaciated Victor while Walton was on his way to discover new territory at the North Pole, as well as Victor and the creature itself.

Eventually utilizing white sheets that drape tables and chairs as funeral shrouds, the dead bodies of people close to Victor begin to add up, And as we follow the daemon through his introduction to the brutal condition of being human, we begin to understand the price we pay when we seek to expand our knowledge, as Walton and Victor did. Increasing knowledge is generally a good thing, of course, but there is a price to be paid. We figured out how to split the atom and how to create fearsome armaments. But those breakthroughs have an awful, even possibly a cataclysmic cost.

And that is one of the intriguing questions this piece asks: Who or what are the monsters among us? Is it the horrors we have created, or is it us? We are all bobbing along in Frankenstein’s Wake, helplessly buffeted by the fearsome creatures of our own making. Yeah, it’s enough to give you shivers, but not in the way you might expect.

Frankenstein’s Wake
Through January 30 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

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