Review: Nick Dear's Frankenstein at A Noise Within

A Noise Within's production of Nick Dear's Frankenstein galvanizes Mary Shelley's immortal monster back to life with a seething vitality that engulfs the stage.

In the two centuries since Mary Shelley unleashed her immortal monster on the world, there have been countless retellings on film and stage - so many that yet another might seem redundant. Yet, somehow, there always seems to be another mad genius eager to resurrect the monster, stitching together a new version of the patchwork creation by omitting some pieces and adding others and in the process revitalizing the Frankenstein story for a new generation.

One such recent resurrection is playwright Nick Dear's 2011 stage version of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, a performance of which has been broadcast to cinemas on several occasions, including October screenings in honor of the novel's 200th anniversary last year. Now, A Noise Within in Pasadena is staging their version of the play. Though less elaborate than the version directed by Danny Boyle, this production marshals its resources to galvanize the story back to life in a way that seethes with vitality - a living, breathing creating, not a moldy, resurrected corpse.

Review: Nick Dear's Frankenstein at a Noise Within - Adaptation
Frankenstein Noise Within Review
Frankenstein's creation (Michael Manuel) pursued by a mob

Nick Dear's script immediately wrestles with and triumphs over the problem or retelling the familiar tale through the simple expediency of beginning his adaptation with the creation of the Creature (as he is billed in the playbook). This very efficiently skips over exposition we already know, skipping over the steps that led Frankenstein to discover the Secret of Life and instead starting with a literally galvanizing moment.

Frankenstein himself is seen only briefly in the beginning, recoiling from his newly birthed creation; the rest of the play's first half follows the Creature as he stumbles through a world he does not understand, persecuted for his ugliness. He becomes the audience's point of view on the story; we watch as he gradually learns the truth about himself - the truth we already know but which looks so much different when discovered through the Creature's eyes.

Nick Dear's Frankenstein Review
A blind man (Harrison White) befriends the nameless creature (Michael Manuel)

The fulcrum on which Dear's play turns is the famous episode with the Blind Man in the hut, who is not intimidated by this stranger's ugly appearance and thus befriends him, teaching him to speak. Unfortunately, the happy interlude crashes and burns (the latter literally) when the old man's son and daughter-in-law get a look at the wretch that has been visiting their abode in the forest, after which the enraged monster sets the hut on fire.

Frankenstein Play Review
The Creature (Michael Manuel) takes revenge on Frakenstein's younger brother (Christian Ganiere).

Having learned the circumstances of his "birth" through Frankenstein's journal, which happened to be in a pocket of a coat he took when escaping the lab, the Creature journeys to reunite with his creator, killing Frankenstein's younger brother, William, and demanding a mate, with whom he promises to depart to uncivilized climes, never to bother the human race again. Frankenstein agrees, until William's ghost appears in a dream to haunt Frankenstein's conscience, serving as a clever dramatic device to voice concerns that were concerns expressed internally in the novel - about whether the Monster can be trusted to keep his word and whether the Monster's intended bride will agree to a pact sealed before her creation.

Dear's script references science more often than did the novel (which despite its reputation is not science fiction), but the script includes more Shelley than most adaptation, minus the literary frame devices unsuitable for the stage. What's condemned is not science but hubris, to some extent, and irresponsibility, to an even greater extent. In Dear's telling, Frankenstein seems to rank somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum - a stranger to emotions (unlike his creation), who disinterest in his fiance, Elizabeth, mirrors his almost complete obliviousness to the consequences of his actions, which put those around him and the world at large at incredible risk.

The Doppleganger theme latent in the original text is emphasized here - not only with Frankenstein and his monster but also with Elizabeth and the monster's mate, all of whom act as mirror images of each other. Just as Frankenstein destroys the monster's mate, so does the Monster destroy Frankenstein's bride; both are played by Erika Soto, emphasizing the duality. (Thankfully, A Noise Within's version omits the rape scene from the 2011 production, which not only expunges gratuitous sexual violence but also maintains a clearer parallel between the two actions. Additionally, one suspects that, given his upbringing, the Creature would have no idea what to do with a woman.)

A Noise Within's Frankenstein Review
The monster (Michael Manuel) targets Frankenstein's bride (Erika Soto).

If Frankenstein feels too little, his Creation feels too much, the pain and rage driving him to commit atrocities that dwarf his creator's misdeeds. As each destroys the other's only hope for happiness, they leave themselves with nothing but their hatred for each other, which burns hotter than scientific apparatus that jolted the monster to life, engulfing the stage with a torrid greenhouse effect.

Review: Nick Dear's Frankenstein at A Noise Within - Staging
Nick Dear's Frankenstein Review
Katie Rodriguez, Michael Manuel

A Noise Within utilizes a mid-sized stage that at first seems slightly small-scale for such a sprawling story; fortunately, director Michael Michetti uses the space to great effect, extending the action into the seating area by having characters make entrances and exits via the aisles. Trap doors serve for graves and streams. François-Pierre Couture's skillful scenic design uses painted wooden planks to create a forest, enhanced by clever lighting and stereo sound design that immerses the audience in the environment.

For such a traditional story, the production feels almost avant garde for first half. Initially, the play is a virtual pantomime, capturing the inarticulate monster's plight as he stumbles, newly born, through a world beyond his understanding, his grunts occasionally interspersed with scattered lines from peripheral characters. Even after the Creature learns to speak in the Blind Man's hut, there are elements that suggest a ballet or a musical: the Creature's dream of romance is represented by dancing woman weaving through the background; later, when he burns down the hut, his rhythmic hopping motions suggest a weird interpretive dance.

These stylistic touches are an interesting way of putting a fresh skin on an old monster, but at times they lend an almost abstract quality to the play, which is at odds with the seething passions that under-gird the story. When the plot turns toward more conventional drama in its second half, focusing on the antagonism between the Creation and its Creator, the staging likewise becomes more traditional, relying on the actor's performances to invest the proceedings with an appropriately pitched level of emotionalism.

Michael Manuel gives an amazing performance as the Creature. His imposing physical presence captures the ferocity and danger of the character; equally important, you always feel the inner fires of rage and self-pity that drive him toward revenge.

Frankenstein Stage Review
Kasey Mahaffy as Frankenstein

Kasey Mahaffy has a trickier role as Victor Frankenstein, who is so emotionally stunted that he comes across like a stiff when interacting with his family and his fiance. He really only comes alive when confronting the Creature, but that seems to be part of the play's strategy - showing Frankenstein come to emotional life in response to his Creation. It's a gambit that pays off, giving the performance somewhere to go and intensifying the climax as the characters head toward their inevitable collision course - which, almost miraculously, feels like a legitimate story development and not just a rerun seen too many times before.

One might draw an analogy to an observation made in Nicol Williamson's one-man play Jack: A Night on the Town with John Barrymore, in which the title character remarks on the difficulty of delivering Shakespearean soliloquys so familiar that the audience is moving their lips along with the actors: John Barrymore noted the way his sister, Ethel, could subtly slide into a speech so that it was happening almost before the audience realized it. In rather the same way, Manuel and Mahaffy slide viewers into the conclusion of Nick Dear's Frankenstein, pulling us along with the familiar story instead of letting our expectations get ahead of the play. It's quite an accomplishment - almost like experiencing the tale for the first time.

Review: Nick Dear's Frankenstein at a Noise Within: Conclusion
Frankenstein Stage Play Review
Frankenstein (Kasey Mahaffy) confronts his Creation (Michael Manuel)

Near the conclusion of Nick Dear's Frankenstein, the unfortunate scientist, half dead from pursuing his monster beyond the limits of endurance, admits that he doesn't know how to love. In response, the Creature offers to teach him. Unfortunately, both characters are too far down the road of mutual vendetta for this to happen, but Frankenstein does learn to feel something - an enormous hatred equal to that which his Creation has for him.

Ultimately, the dramatic flaw of both characters is that they feel too much, but their emotions are focused only on their own pain, not on the pain they inflict on those around them. The only truly profound emotional interaction either one has is with the other, their mutual animosity reinforcing itself like two lumps of plutonium heating to the critical mass of a nuclear meltdown.

By the end all the two of them have left is that hostility for each other, driving their pursuit through arctic wastelands and leading to a dramatically overwhelming conclusion that satisfies without providing a conflagration, a fight, or even a clear victory. Instead, their tragic duet - a pas de deux of Death and Despair, continues without visible end - perhaps a comment on the fact that this story lives on, eternally.

Sadly, A Noise Within's production will not go on forever; this is its final week. Fans of Mary Shelley's famous tale are advised to take advantage while they still can...

Nick Dear's Frankenstein at A Noise Within: Rating
4

Bottom Line

Instead of letting audience expectations get ahead of the familiar story, A Noise Within skillfully pulls the audience along with with Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley; it’s as close as one can imagine to experiencing the tale for the first time.

Credits: Adaptation by Nick Dear, from the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Directed by Michael Michetti. Scenic Design: François-Pierre Couture. Costume Design: Garry Lennon. Lighting Design: Jared A. Sayeg. Original Music & Sound Design: Robert Oriol. Creature Make-up Design: Angela Santori.

Cast: Michael Manuel, Kasey Mahaffy, Erika Soto, Harrison White, Thomas Hobson, Bjorn Johnson, Christian Ganiere, Van Brunelle, Katie Rodriguez, Jeremy Rabb, Robert Hope, Desiree Mee Jung, Garrett Walters.

Nick Dear’s Frankenstein continues at A Noise Within until September 8, with performances running Wednesdays through Sundays. The address is 3352 E. Foothill Boulevard
Pasadena, 91107. For more information, visit: anoisewithin.org.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.