Dallas — Dallas Theater Center and Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts presents Frankenstein: Who is the Real Monster, adapted by Nick Dear from the novel by Mary Shelley. The sell-out hit at London's Royal National Theatre—this was the version that had Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating in the roles of the doctor and the Creature—hit comes to Dallas opening and running through March 4 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Mary Shelley was 18, in love with a married poet and confronting her controlling father when she wrote Frankenstein, 200 years ago in 1817. Her chilling horror story of a scientist whose experiment makes a creature that takes on a life of its own continues to fascinate us in a world grappling with the medical and ethical implications of cloning animals for human use and scientific inquiry.
TheaterJones talked to Frankenstein director Joel Ferrell, DTC associate artistic director, about the production.
TheaterJones: How is Frankenstein relevant to our city and our national outlook at this time?
Joel Ferrell: First, I think it’s lasted so long because it’s about an intelligent woman, with little agency or power, looking at the hubris of man during the 19th century Industrial Revolution. She worried that people in charge would lose control of the machines. Secondly, the piece is still relevant because it is about the consequences of invention. Nick Dear leans into the theme of taking responsibility for what you’ve set in motion, what you’ve created in a male-dominated world. We’re almost too smart for our own good. Then the inventions are combined with privilege and a high level of power, like our politicians of the day. Facebook must take responsibility, for instance, for the social media machine they’ve created. Social media is an amazing thing, unless it is abused. The people who created it must remain vigilant about it.
At the center of Mary Shelley’s writing in the Romantic era of English literature is the question of a creator’s relationship with the creature he made. What kind of creator punishes and seeks to destroy the creature he made? How is this central question dramatized in Dear’s adaptation?
I think what’s fascinating to me is that Mary Shelley looks closely at Victor Frankenstein, who thought of the creature as something he owned. Yet Victor was dabbling in a world where the being has muscles and nerves and emotions and thoughts of his own. It’s very much about the parent-child relationship. Every parent overprotects and over-parents the child they bring into world. Hard to let the child move on without punishing them for their autonomy. We treat animals like this, although now we are moving toward a culture that says the other animals on the planet are not there simply for human pleasure or sport. The play is also about whether the marginalized or disenfranchised have any hope of gaining a place in the world. We demand they accept their role as evil if that’s what we say. I took on the show at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Suddenly people trying to escape death and terror were labeled as invaders. This view continues to be upsetting. I talked a lot about the refugee crisis with the designers of the show. Nick Dear turns the book’s narrative around and we meet the creature early. You feel the creature’s emotions right away, so that when Victor and the creature meet on the mountain, you are surprised by what little understanding Victor has. That is the brilliance of Nick Dear’s adaptation.
Many people know Frankenstein as a movie with Boris Karloff lurching forward, his head fastened with a giant bolt bleeding from his forehead. How is Dear’s version of the monster different? What are the implications of that difference?
In a sense, Nick Dear’s creature is much more aligned with Shelley’s intention. In the novel, she gives very little information on how the monster was made. Her informal education was incredible, but she knew enough to skim past actual understanding of how this creature is brought to life. She says it’s too dangerous to know, and leaves the creature to your imagination. She describes him as very human. Nick Dear’s creature says he doesn’t eat animals and has no wish to kill. He lives off berries and fruit. In This creature believes himself to be quite innocent; he doesn’t want to be a predator, but he is brutalized because of the way he looks. He is forced to think that if the world is going to treat him as evil, then he accepts the role, not unlike Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
In Dear’s adaptation, we see the creature born, thrust into a life he didn’t ask for, full grown, but ignorant of the world in which his creator thrusts him. How does this affect our response to the creature?
Every human in the world understands the fight or flight nature of being born into a terrifying world they don’t understand. In our modern culture, most of us don’t wake up worrying about where we are getting out next meal. But we can be thrust into a survival mode ourselves. That’s how Nick Dear connects us to the creature. Get past what he looks like and see he has been given no help. Some people see the homeless as a threat, when they are in pain and down and out. Why not lean toward them and see how can we help? This adaptation makes clear that the uneducated of this world are frightened of everything they don’t understand. Beware of ignorance, as Dickens says in A Christmas Carol. Ignorance is the worst of all society’s problems, because it is the thing that can take the world down. We’re having that argument right now when we’re talking about funding public schools and making college available without mountains of debt. You can’t keep stripping people of the ability to get an education, and then blame them for it. Who’s the bad guy? People in power are doing the damage and blaming the victim. Mary Shelley’s life was a rolling, tumultuous thing governed by men, yet she found a way to speak. Her message about the plight of women is like Jane Austen’s, but in a heavier and darker way.
Do you see this adaptation as a cautionary tale of the fate of scientists trying to play God in the quest for knowledge?
This will always be a central theme of Frankenstein. If you are taking the world in a new direction, there will be consequences. Nuclear power makes possible the terrible weapons of bombs. There was a huge downside to the 19th century Industrial Revolution that mechanized manufacturing and made hand labor on farms obsolete. Social media manipulation is just such an invention, although there are people so unwilling to look at its impact. The story will always be a cautionary tale about the danger of pride, of hubris.
Shelley was a teenager when she wrote the novella. Do you hear the voice of late adolescence in the show? How do you present that?
I would love to see an adaptation by a woman, directed by a woman. I’ve enjoyed trying to get deeply connected to Mary Shelley. I work to try to be in her shoes. She was extraordinarily mature, and there is an amazing amount of melancholy romance to the story. Still, the truly terrorizing thing in the adaptation is the wrenching sadness of the victims of male hubris, controlling the lives of women, whatever their station in life.
How do you like staging a production in the historic Kalita Humphreys Theater? How does the venue embrace the play?
I love working in the Kalita. It’s a unique and remarkable space. I am trying to work with the theater and not against it. It’s full of wonderful ghosts. There’s so much rich history embedded in Frank Lloyd Wright’s concrete walls and niches and crannies. It’s a great place to bring to life this tale of terror and romance. I sit here until everyone has cleared out most evenings, and I’ve had some very unusual experiences. I’ve worked here 30 years and watched the world around us change, and yet there’s something here of Paul Baker’s beginnings that haunt you in a good way. Every once in a while, the Kalita gets angry and screams at you, but for the most part the phantom here is benevolent and has a sense of humor, very Paul Bakery, daring and wryly humorous.
Can you talk about the cast and what they bring to the show?
The SMU students I’m working with are a complete joy. They come at it with such energy. Faculty members are here, and they’re also teachers of those students. Alex Organ (as Victor Frankenstein) is extraordinary in his gifts and rigor. He brings so much to the table before you even start. Kim Fisher, playing the creature, has an amazing background in physical theater. At 29, he’s extraordinarily fearless, smart and really brave. You hear the word fearless a lot, but Kim is truly willing to look idiotic to find the beat of something.
There’s a big interest in monsters within theater lately. How does Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, onstage at Theatre Three now, relate to Nick Dear’s Frankenstein?
I have not seen the production yet, but will next week. I have worked on a Jekyll and Hyde in the past, and what is informative about both these plays is the danger arising when a man’s ego gets out of hand.
What do you want audiences to take away from this production?
If you are unwilling to see your fellow humans as brothers and sisters, you will do much harm in the world. You must bring aid and positive things to the world. You live on this planet collaboratively with fellow humans and animals. If you deal with the world around you simply from the point of view of ownership and power, you will create monsters.