BOWIE – Most of us are familiar with “Frankenstein” from the horror movies on late-night TV in which villagers retreat in terror from a colossal, robot-like hideous Frankenstein monster who kills people indiscriminately throughout the countryside.
Bowie Community Theatre recently staged the Victor Gialenella adaptation of the novel by Mary Shelley which considered a different take on the story, and one which is much more in keeping with the original novel by Mary Shelley.
This is fitting, as 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publishing of the gothic novel.
In the novel, there is a broad ethical question ignored in horror cinema: who is truly the monster, the creature, or Dr. Frankenstein himself, the creator of the pitiable creature for a scientific experiment, a man who treats his creature without love and without a compassionate introduction to the world around him? There is still terror throughout the play, with killings and mildly bloody scenes on stage. Throughout the play, though, the true focus of terror is on the cold heart of man.
This version attempts to eschew the popular-culture take on “Frankenstein” and return the work to its literary roots, perhaps in anticipation of moral questions the tale raises. There are the creature’s references to the Genesis narrative of the Bible as he discusses Adam, the first man. Dr. Frankenstein is compared to Prometheus, who in Greek mythology brought man fire – a beneficial but also potentially destructive gift.
Outside the theatre, one is treated to a quote from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay, to mould me, man? Did I solicit thee, from darkness to promote me?” The creature who did not ask to be created may well ask the same.
With this loyalty to some of the themes Mary Shelly brings up in her novel, the production corrects many misconceptions we have. The story takes place not in the hinterlands of Transylvania (home to Dracula), but rather outside the thriving Swiss financial capital of Geneva. Also, Frankenstein does not refer to the name of the creature, but to Dr. Frankenstein, the scientist who creates it.
The actor who played the monster creature was excellent, trying to understand the world around him, as people ran away in fear because of his ugly looks. The acting elsewhere was in general very moving, particularly in the cases of the wife of the inspector and Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elisabeth. One element of the production I would question is the accent coaching. Often the same character would swing back-and-forth between German, American and British accents. Working harder on Swiss German accents would have helped, or perhaps leaving behind foreign accents altogether and allowing the story and setting to transfer the audience into the world outside Geneva centuries ago.
As the play starts, Dr. Frankenstein’s father is reading his son’s journal, and we begin to see acted out the Frankenstein story via flashback. Then Frankenstein’s father with whom we presumably see the story is killed by the creature. Thus, the frame does not wrap up at the end.
The props and changes of setting were very atmospheric. The director, Brian Douglas, said he tried to incorporate a “steam punk” look, that is, how the late 1800’s and early 1900’s postulated technology of the future might look like. The production’s “retro-futurist” sets with their designs of electric wires and flashing lights reminded me of the 1927 Fritz Lang film “Metropolis,” which would set the look for fictional mad-scientist laboratories far into the future.
The walk to the Bowie Playhouse is indeed spooky during this dark time of year, as there are no lights, it is dank and dark, and one goes through woods of barren trees and sticks before arriving at a theatre filled with black tones as we see a grave while the audience awaits the production with tension - a tension heightened not by the terror of monsters, but by the terror of the nature of the cold heart of the Frankenstein creature’s monstrous creator and as well as the creature’s cruel tormentors.