Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, adapted by Jim Helsinger from the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Directed and designed by John Sowle. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
". . .infused in me a love of adventure."
Steven Patterson as Robert; photo: John Sowle
In 1818 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, recently married to poet Percy Bysche Shelley, wrote her own book, "Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus"; she was only 21 years old. The book and its impact have reverberated through nearly 200 years without abating. Most of us have relished the horror story in one form or another, mostly though through the comic incarnations of her damned creature, the monster known as Frankenstein, in the hundreds of film editions of the story which have included the creature's relationships with the Wolf Man, Dracula and other mythic bad guys with whom the creature was never meant to be seen as a partner.
In fact, Mary Shelley's Creature was not to be known as Frankenstein. That was the name of the young doctor/scientist who discovered a method for reanimation of the dead in her book. Victor Frankenstein was best played by Colin Clive in the first film which also moved a bit player named Boris Karloff into the limelight as the Creature. Except for the overacting, particularly in the "It's alive! ALIVE!" sequence, his performances as the creator, or "father," of this horror is the classic image of the scientist driven nearly mad by the awkward success of his experiments. Its sequel, "Bride of Frankenstein" while considered the height of "CAMP" is actually drawn straight out of the novel, as the new play at Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY shows us. The unforgettable vision of the electric-haired Elsa Lanchester has formed our opinions of the film and the story. However, what Mrs. Shelley wrote is something quite special and different.
In Jim Helsinger's adaptation of the original novel, all of the characters are portrayed by a single actor. Steven Patterson, co-founder of the Bridge Street Theatre, takes on the role which is an exhausting experience for performer and audience alike. He is onstage continually, changing costumes, hair, personna and set as required in order to tell this story. While I admire this feat and honestly believe that he performs it as well as anyone could, I would have enjoyed it more with two other actors performing roles in conjunction with him. There is an awkwardness in the more confrontational moments where a second player would have made all the difference.
However, Patterson's remarkable achievement is what we have to consider. His transitions from one man to another are extremely well done, his use of accents and stances helping to achieve the realization of each and every one. The most remarkable of all, though, is his return at the top of Act Two for a very long monologue by The Creature himself as he relates his story from his own point of view.
Steven Patterson as The Creature; photo: John Sowle
It is this extraordinary sequence that best defines the play. Here the phenomenal newly born man comes to grips with his history and his past. He assumes himself the child of Dr. Frankenstein rather than the incidental creation of that man's genius. He travels through the rigors of classic childhood rebellion as his "father's rejection" of him gives him awful angst about his place in life. His reaction is violent and his actions are vile. He has somehow achieved the incredible brain power of his creator and the two men become bitter enemies, the creator attempting to eliminate his creation, then falling into the dream of creating a mate for the horror, then realizing his mistake, then becoming the pursued who becomes the pursuer as the creature flees for the north pole to survive alone as best he can.
It is this chase scene that opens and closes the work. It is a tribute to John Sowle, the designer and director that this aspect of the play works so well. Through movement and lighting and the structure of the set itself, we are moved through space more than time and we are moved emotionally by the motivations of both the main characters. Even the sweetness of the ship captain who has rescued Victor Frankenstein on his ice-breaker is given perfect and simple honesty as he questions the man he has saved from drowning frozen below the ice of the north sea.
Michelle Rogers costumes are appropriate and fine for each character. Carmen Borgia's sound design adds to the theatrical reality of the play. The whole is much greater here than the parts that comprise it. Shelley's early 19th century language never becomes arch or difficult, never assumes a period sensibility that interferes with story-telling or emotional reactions.
In all, this is an intriguing addition to the theater scene in the region and, perhaps, it should inspire a yearly retelling on this stage. It brings back the reality of what Shelley created and sends up the send-ups we've grown so used to seeing, even in an Abbott and Costello film. As for this edition, well, I'd see it again. Once a year.
Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus plays at Bridge Street Theatre, 44 W. Bridge Street, Catskill, NY through October 23. For tickets or information call the box office at 518-943-3818 or go on line at BridgeStreetTheatre.org.