What hath Murray Ross, artistic director of TheatreWorks, wrought?
Alas, he has brought forth a great monster in Frankenstein: a new expectation that Colorado Springs might be the birthing ground for world-class premieres, for unparalleled adaptations, and for unclassifiable but extremely moving theater.
He has brought to Colorado Springs The Flying Machine, a four-person collaborative theater group based in New York City. Apparently, Murray Ross saw The Flying Machine on their home turf and invited them here to produce an original adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in collaboration with the Pikes Peak Library District's All Pikes Peak Reads program. (Judging by the full house on Friday night, all of Pikes Peak does read, too.)
This is a remarkable production. If you didn't consider going because you think you already know the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, recant.
In the TheatreWorks production of Frankenstein, The Flying Machine has done an amazing job of bringing the gothic pathos of the original work to life while remaining slavishly wedded to the text. This is especially remarkable given the millions of takeoffs on the classic tale from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein to The Munsters. Through a series of fine artistic choices, The Flying Machine manages to make you forget all the schlock surrounding the creature and his creator, and be moved once again by the empathy and horror of Shelley's original.
A large part of the production's success is due to the group's excellent adaptation of Shelley's original text. While most renditions concentrate largely on the form of the unnamed creature created by the genius and selfishness of Dr. Frankenstein, this production gives due weight to the pain inflicted upon the creature by his abandonment. Left alone by his creator, reviled by humankind because of the monstrosity of his body, the creature is doomed to a life of pain and loneliness.
Fully a third of this production focuses on that torture, highlighting the creature as he learns to speak, as he learns how to be human by watching humans, as he tries to be kind, and is then cruelly rejected by men.
The Flying Machine uses all the tools of the theater -- space, light, bodies, sound, costumes, makeup -- but only four actors to tantalize the eyes, ears and emotions.
In the main part of the stage, there is nothing but a trapezoidal platform, three sides sloping down onto the floor. Behind that are two layers of scrim. With lights behind, in between, and in front of each layer, the cast effectively manages to translate complicated temporal structure of the novel, create levels of the seen and unseen, and develop a suspense that is heightened by amazing lighting design.
Effective throughout, this light and scene design is especially interesting in the portrayal of the creature. As he comes to life, he appears to float behind the two layers of scrim, bolts of electricity bringing his body to life. The effect is better than anything you've seen in the movies -- a moment that borrows its power from film, but that uses light, sound, space and costume (or lack thereof) to their fullest.
While the creature is fully developed and at his most evil and despairing, he remains behind the scrim, with lighting that makes him appear as the 8-foot being described in Shelley's novel. When he is telling his own tale in an attempt garner Frankenstein's sympathy, however, he stays almost entirely on the trapezoidal platform, right in front of the audience. There he shows and tells of pain and loneliness, his attempt to be human, his rejection by all, including his creator.
The Flying Machine has only three adult cast members led by Richard Crawford (who plays the creature and a second male role). Crawford curves his spine and deforms his feet, holding his hands askew as he lopes across the platform as an unformed creature; speaks with dignity and hesitation as he tries to find comfort among humans; and straightens in rage and anger as he kills those who reject. You cannot help but sympathize with such a creature, and recoil in horror at his actions.
Since this adaptation is missing the emphasis that Shelley placed on young Victor's early years, brought up as a narcissistic and spoiled aristocrat, incapable of empathy or wider understanding, Gregory Steinbruner's adaptation of Frankenstein comes off as slightly stilted and confusing.
Likewise, actor Tami Stronach is lovely in her white gown as the ingnue Elizabeth, but Frankenstein is not the most expressive vehicle for an actress. Nevertheless, all the performances are quite fine.
But let's not forget Ross either, who has once again raised our expectations from the dead for what theater can and should be in the Pikes Peak region.
-- Andrea Lucard
Created and performed by The Flying Machine
TheatreWorks' Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Cragwood Drive (Northwest corner of Union Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway)
Sept. 19 - Oct. 12; Thursdays Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.; Sundays at 4 p.m.
$18 for Thursday evening and Saturday matinee shows; $20, Friday, Saturday evening and Sunday.
Call 262-3232 www.uccstheatreworks.com