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Dead or Alive 

An entertaining mix of melodrama and kitsch, but does Monster speak to today's audience?

Wednesday, Feb 23 2005
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Reviewers of plays adapted from other art forms invariably devote an alarming number of column inches to worrying about the extent to which the production in question is faithful to the original. When it comes to adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, this activity seems particularly futile. Published in 1818, the Gothic classic has mutated so many times on stage, screen, and comic book page that the content has more or less become irrelevant. It's gotten to the point where many people consider Shelley's novel to be about a mad, wiry-haired scientist who, with the help of a hunchbacked assistant (usually named Igor), creates "Frankenstein," a monster who runs amok, destroying everything in his path. In the original, however, Frankenstein is not the monster's name but the scientist's, and there are no assistants, hunchbacked or otherwise. Shelley's monster is indeed a killer, but the fact that he possesses a benign side, not to mention considerable intellectual capabilities -- he even teaches himself to read Milton's Paradise Lost -- is frequently lost on the popular imagination. As a result of the novel's sprawling afterlife, the most pressing question on the reviewer's lips when experiencing yet another adaptation of the legend should not so much be "How faithful is this version to Shelley?" but "Why bother at all?"

SF Playhouse's production of Monster, a recent makeover of Frankenstein by Obie Award-winning playwright Neal Bell, gives a couple of reasons to justify its existence in the accompanying program notes. One draws a tidy parallel between the legend and the current political debate surrounding human cloning and stem cell research. Though highly relevant to contemporary audiences -- especially in the Bay Area, a life sciences hub -- the idea doesn't satisfactorily translate from theory to practice. Less "a brilliant biotech genius," as he is described in the publicity material, than a tortured young man with a penchant for persecuting household pets, Bell's twentysomething Victor Frankenstein spends much of his time whining about his home life, electrocuting frogs, and dissecting cats. Far from inviting serious comparison with our own post-digital age, actor Jason Frazier -- playing a thoroughly Romantic Dr. Frankenstein, with his spindly frame, cascading blond hair, and gaunt features -- animates the lifeless human form by pressing a jar of what looks like pickled frogs' legs into his back as if sticking a key into a windup toy, making Monster appear about as biotech as a cuckoo clock.

In Bell's version of the legend, science -- even of the most low-tech variety -- is capable of performing miracles. The only hurdle standing in the way of Dr. Frankenstein's goal of achieving international scientific success is peculiarly domestic: What Monster lacks in terms of penetrating scientific inquiry it more than makes up for with its thought-provoking analysis of parent-child relationships. Indeed, the link between creator and created is outlined in the program notes as the other reason for SF Playhouse's interest in Monster. Dressed in a diaperlike loincloth like an overgrown baby, the creature in Bell's play (Paul Santiago) is very human. Given fluid speeches rather than the statutory monster-style grunt, he openly expresses his pain and desires: All he wants, it seems, is for Dad to pay him a bit of attention once in a while.

The parenting deficit extends well beyond the lonely monster in Bell's play. Frankenstein himself, whose mother seems more concerned about the cat's well-being than her son's, is maladjusted, to say the least. Then there's his younger brother, William, performed by Csilla Horvath as a pigeon-toed idiot savant in a Cupid wig and velvet sailor suit (the sort worn by Little Lord Fauntleroy and his ilk). It's no wonder the little twerp winds up dead. I blame the parents.

As the main progenitors of the production, director Bill English and playwright Bell could also use a few lessons in good fathering. Between the faux-Gothic melodrama of the mise-en-scène and Bell's yuk-yuk sense of humor, Monster moves as if with a clubfoot. Instead of creating a sense of wild spoof through the marriage of melodrama and slapstick, as Mel Brooks did so successfully in his 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, Monster presents moments of horror-style tension (reminiscent of famed film company Hammer) that fall flat, such as the point when the maid, Justine (Zehra Berkman), is pinned to the ground by the monster and shrieks to the distraught Frankenstein, "You could have given him better teeth!"

In some ways, Monster's preoccupation with the timeless issue of parent-child relations is justification enough for the story's re-emergence. But the treatment of the theme renders it strangely old-fashioned. Rooted in the best-selling child-care books of Dr. Benjamin Spock, parenting, as a subject of serious study, exploded in the 1950s and '60s. The play's gung-ho view of science as an all-accomplishing, positive force also brings to mind the postwar years. Similarly, the current of experimentation in Monster extends into the realm of sexual experimentation, another '60s idea. Even the production's fabulous lo-fi aesthetic -- a cavelike set, swirling eddies of dry ice, tacky filmed backdrops, and lurid violet, green, and blue lights -- suggests a mid-20th-century sci-fi flick. I half-expected a yellow plastic submarine and some iridescent fish to float by.

The blessing (or, depending on how you look at it, the curse) of Shelley's novel is its open-endedness. The author's refusal to pass moral judgment upon Victor Frankenstein and his monster is largely responsible for the avalanche of adaptations the work has inspired since its publication almost 200 years ago. From the first version of the work for the stage, Richard Brinsley Peake's 1823 Presumption: Or the Fate of Frankenstein, to more recent incarnations like Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, adapters have strived to match the story with contemporary concerns. For instance, in line with the austere moral outlook of the 19th-century, Peake's Frankenstein conforms to Christian notions of sin and damnation. Peake regarded the doctor as a latter-day Faust, making a pact with the devil by raising the dead; unsurprisingly, both maker and monster come to an untimely end. Branagh, by comparison, sees the scientist as a visionary -- a perfect hero for the early days of the high-tech boom. But with its halfhearted exploration of the 21st-century biotech idea and the yesteryear approach to everything else, SF Playhouse's version -- despite what the program notes tell us -- doesn't really address present-day concerns. Monster is an entertaining mixture of Gothic melodrama and retro kitsch, but it leaves the "Why bother?" question twitching involuntarily before our eyes, like the legs of a dead frog animated by electricity.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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