During an age in which some folks are swatting away science as though it were a mosquito, it makes sense to revisit a story that strongly suggests that we cautiously use science for our benefit.
Frankenstein is such a tale. And it reminds us about the potential consequences of misusing or ignoring science. Indeed, the story suggests that such consequences can be far scarier than some goodie-demanding ghost or goblin on Halloween.
Thankfully, there is good news for folks new to Frankenstein. Specifically, you do not need to know who, for instance, Robert Walton is to leave Zoetic Stage’s mostly excellent production of "Frankenstein" moved to change something about yourself or society.
Actually, Walton, a ship captain in Mary Shelley’s wordy, sometimes dense 1818 novel, is not even a character in playwright Nick Dear’s taut, touching, and compelling stage version of "Frankenstein." The play, which runs about two hours with no intermission, premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2011. It remains onstage through Oct. 31 in the professional, nonprofit Zoetic Stage’s intimate Carnival Studio Theater, located inside the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. Masks are required.
Dear has stripped much of the fat from Shelley’s novel. The result is a lean, focused, and a somewhat scary stage adaptation. However, neither Dear nor production director Stuart Meltzer include anything gory or too graphic. Still, sound designer Matt Corey includes enough foreboding sound effects, especially in the beginning, to satisfy those wishing for something frightful in the days leading up to Halloween.
Dear makes the unnamed creature the focal point of the tale, which the playwright tells from the creature’s perspective. The result is that we can identify with the being much more than we recoil in horror upon looking at the beast. In fact, in Dear’s play, and in Zoetic’s production of it, the Creature is not scary. Rather, it is a lost, misunderstood, frustrated soul. Unfortunately, society has identified the Creature as an outcast, due to what characters believe is its hideous appearance.
In Zoetic’s production, the Creature looks as though someone has stitched the character together. Kudos to makeup artist Kelly Flores for making the creature look like its body has either suffered severe trauma or developed unnaturally. And, of course, credit Gabriell Salgado for his moving, intense, yet unforced performance as Victor Frankenstein’s creation.
Salgado imbues the character with a credible and intense yearning for connection. The actor also makes it clear that the Creature is frustrated that people shun him. Clearly, this character is suffering emotionally, to hear the palpable anguish escaping Salgado’s voice. To the performer’s credit, he never strives to act like a menacing monster. Nor does he appear to have based his performance on Boris Karloff’s depiction of the creature in the 1931 movie adaptation of "Frankenstein." Rather, Salgado imbues the being with sensitivity and a sense that it is slowly, but surely, learning not only knowledge, but how to properly behave in a world that it was never meant to enter.
For the uninitiated, Frankenstein is the last name of Victor Frankenstein. In Shelley’s imagination, he is an ambitious, arrogant scientist obsessed with discovering “the cause of generation and life,” as well as “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” As a result, Victor assembles a human being from stolen body parts. Then, the scientist turns away his creation, disgusted with its appearance. Only following rejection after rejection does the creature become bent on revenge against his creator and others.
Certainly, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale against unchecked ambition and pride in the field of science. But the story has multiple layers. For instance, the tale also leaves readers/viewers considering the nature of good and evil, and whether people are born with such traits. Also, the story, like others such as "Beauty and the Beast," suggests that the true essence of someone lies within them. In addition, the author, without preaching, demonstrates a caring feeling toward outcasts and suggests that a need exists for human connection.
From the beginning of his play, Dear shows that his heart is with the Creature. When we first hear Frankenstein’s creation, the being finds itself stuck in an organic pod. We hear a heartbeat, which might be an attempt to suggest that the character is at least partly human. Then, we watch as the being, which has made it out of the pod, struggles mightily to move. You might think you are watching somebody suffer a seizure. Or, you might feel as though you’re watching someone who cannot swim after being thrown into a pool. We watch and listen as the Creature crawls, grunts, panics, pants, flails, spins, struggles, stumbles, and shakes. Also, the Creature’s wide, scared eyes suggest he is in unfamiliar territory. Suddenly, he picks up a book. He looks at it in wonder, then drops it as though it were hot food.
The opening scenes do not include dialogue. Still, with all of the movement, palpable tension permeates the play. Further, the use of stage fog and Rebecca Montero’s intense, colored, nonrealistic lighting adds to the surrealistic atmosphere.
With the harsh manner in which various characters react to the being, you begin to wonder whether they are the real monsters. In fact, just about everybody but a blind man, whom a wide-eyed Barry Tarallo plays with credible kindness, can’t bear the sight of or sounds coming from the Creature. As a result, they shoo it away.
In addition to Salgado’s fine work as the Creature, several cast members shine. They include a haughty, unfeeling Daniel Capote as Victor Frankenstein, who is less of a focus in Dear’s adaptation than in the novel. Also, a convincingly frightened and a no-nonsense Matthew W. Korinko plays Frankenstein’s father.
On the questionable side, a ritual-like dance number toward the beginning seems out of place. Also, while Meltzer’s direction is strong, it is curious why a couple of scenes take place at the far end of the runway-like stage (audience members seated on either side). Staging such scenes, like one taking place in a graveyard, in the middle of the stage would allow more people to clearly see the action.
In his script, Dear notes that the action takes place circa 1818 in Europe. However, he does not specify a country. Even so, from the actors’ accents, one might conclude that this production takes place mostly in England.
With Natalie Taveras and Jodi Dellaventura’s minimal scenic design, the focus is on the story and characters. The performers, a talented mixture of veterans and newcomers, wear costume designer Marina Pareja’s period-specific clothes.
During the present, when the suggested use of UV light and disinfectant to treat COVID-19 is still fresh in our minds, it is refreshing to revisit a tale whose author clearly has science in mind. The fact that Zoetic Stage’s production of "Frankenstein" is running before and up to Halloween is an added bonus.
Zoetic Stage’s production of Nick Dear’s stage adaptation of "Frankenstein" runs through Oct. 31 as part of the Arsht Center’s “Theater Up Close” series. The venue is located at 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami. For tickets, call (305) 949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org. You can also visit www.zoeticstage.org.