This production of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus” is a perfect accomplishment of Book-It Repertory Theatre’s mission to “transform great literature into great theater”. The acting is on a consistently high level, the dramatic action both exciting and moving and the transposition of the novel into theatrical immediacy both thrilling and satisfying. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of director/adapter David Quicksall is in restoring the urgent significance to a story that has been popularized, adapted, camped and trivialized into a pop culture joke. It is obvious in this production that Shelley had something very important to say about what it means to be human, about our fundamental need to love and be loved, about the dangers of ambitions that exceed our proper place in life, and about the terrible costs of trespassing into the realm of the divine.
Connor Toms had extraordinary energy and dramatic focus in his portrayal of Victor Frankenstein. His obsession, at first pure and then corrupted, is the driving force behind all the action. His pursuit of the energy of life itself ultimately removes him from that life. Toms is able to make the character decent and sympathetic in order for us to commiserate as we follow him into his terrible personal ruin and damnation.
We first see him when he is rescued in the Arctic, near death, by a sailing ship that has been trapped in the ice. He is nearly dead from his quest to find his escaping monster. When he begins to recover he tells his story to the Captain, and it is in hearing that story that we learn all that has led him to this ultimate extremity. As his story begins we see him as a young boy interested in science, while his mates, his cousin Elizabeth and his best friend, Henry, are more interested in the romantic poetry of the period. How ironic that the most profound answers to the greatest questions raised by his scientific experimentation are more likely to be found in the poets than in his fellow scientists.
As Victor grows he becomes obsessed with the human body, and more specifically, what is it exactly that grants flesh life itself. He assembles a creature from body parts purloined from grave diggers and once that body is complete, he shoots electricity into it, and a horrible, deformed, naked, unnamed being falls to the floor, unborn but alive. Victor truly doesn’t know what he has done. Especially after a young boy, William (Nathaniel Grams, is found dead with a giant’s handprints on his throat. Especially when one after another of the people he loves die around him, and he has to acknowledge that he has no power over life and death. Especially when that “monster” realizes that he has a heart and desires of the heart no less and no different than any other human.
Jim Hamerlinck is deeply impressive as the creature. Only his body, deformed and horrific, is different than those around him, those who despise and seek to hurt him, when all he wants is to feel that he belongs to a community of the living. Hamerlinck never makes this creature a monster and rapidly, profoundly shows us that this artificial creature has a soul that is, quite possibly, more genuine than Victor’s. When he eavesdrops on a local family, attempting to learn speech, his innocence and simple desire to belong to a family is sweet and universal. When he insists that Victor create a female creature for him, so that he has someone who is like him to love, so that he is not alone in existence, it is only further proof of his authenticity and his humanity. When that female creature is brought to life, passionate and sexual, Victor kills her out of fear that he could be responsible for creating a whole new race of humanity, and that is the final condemnation for the monster that he will lead his life in isolation. He heads off for the Arctic, with Victor in pursuit, in order to immolate himself at the most distant place in the world.
Of course, this story is fundamentally about Victor and the monster, but the others in Victor’s life play very important roles. Bill Johns as his father was understated but influential, Sacha Streckel as the cousin Elizabeth, a childhood playmate who will become his wife, until she is killed on their wedding night by the monster, Ian Bond as his lifelong friend, Henry, a man blessed with an altogether ordinary life. As Victor’s mother, Heather Persinger is elegant and influential, a kind of model of civilization to Victor. All the more impressive when that same actress comes back as the female creature, again naked and uncivilized, filled with passions she cannot understand, and is then granted only the briefest lifetime. The Captain of the ship (Frank Lawler) that rescues Victor has a most understated role, but he critically serves as the embodiment of our own eyes as we look on this incredible story. His crewmates (Parker Matthews and Zach Simonson) were just fine in decidedly subsidiary roles.
The scenic design (Andrea Bryn Bush) of this production was quite minimal and that served to keep our attention on the characters and the storytelling. The costumes, by Jocelyne Fowler, were appropriate and well-finished. The lighting by Andrew W. Smith and sound design by Nathan Wade added important technical elements to the drama.
The real accomplishment for David Quicksall and this cast was in making “Frankenstein” feel new and original, while returning to the source material in a faithful and coherent way. There are very good reasons why this is one of the greatest stories in English literature, and why it has endured and remained so relevant for so long. This production is filled with the wealth, the authenticity and the profound significance of the deep questions of the original. And it’s a great evening in the theater.
PICTURED ABOVE: Connor Toms and Jim Hamerlinck
PHOTO BY: Chris Bennion