My mother groan’d!
My father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
— Wm. Blake, Songs of Experience, 1789
Dallas — The dark theater flashes with lightning and a chilling bolt of electricity thunders from the heights of the three-story proscenium stage reverberating through our bodies as we experience the birth trauma of the muscled, blood-spattered creature literally spinning into existence on a rope which flings him to the stage, yowling animal noises and flailing painfully to a staggering step forward.
We’re thrown, like the creature himself, into the midst of 19th century village life in Nick Dear’s 2011 adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, tightly directed with intermittent abandon by Joel Ferrell for the Dallas Theater Center at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, in association with Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts.
Before the enthralling night is done we’ve experienced the pain and wrath of the abandoned Creature (Kim Fischer), the excitement and remorse of his creator, Victor Frankenstein (Alex Organ), the bright sliver of human love and learning extended by a poor, blind scholar (Blake Hackler). We leave the always encompassing arms of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed theater, our heads newly spinning (like the creature at birth) with all the tragic human consequences and responsibilities of giving birth to everything from a nuclear equation to social media, from a cloned living creature to a human child.
William Blake’s brilliant insight into the nature of the fiendish capability of human nature thrown into a dangerous world reminds us that a creature that begins in innocence can kill, if need be.
The atmosphere created by the designers is a carefully orchestrated ensemble work in itself. Set designer Amelia Bransky, an SMU student, opens the stage to the rafters, and sets scaffolding on the circular moving floor, allowing smooth shifts from a drawing room to a morgue. The design is augmented by Tyler Micoleau’s dramatic lighting and David Bengali’s fantastic projections of green forests, dark Blakean factories with orange flames rising or a wintry Arctic scene as the action shifts geographically. Ryan Rumery’s original music reflects the mood of the moment; his sound design, from birdsong in the woods to rain falling from above, is keyed to the newborn creature’s movements and voice, his first anguished howls echoing like a painful stutter. Beth Goldenberg’s period costumes reflect the station of poor, linen-clad peasants. Tailored jackets and delicate lace are worn smartly by the rich.
Fischer’s Creature is all tendon and wiry muscle, powerfully touching in his stumbling attempt to stand, and endearing in his joy raising his face skyward to drink rainwater. We suffer with him when, hungry and lonely, he approaches two hunters roasting their kill. Fischer’s Creature is a bloody, scarred horror to all who look on him, yet we see his sadness and pain as villagers either run away screaming or brutally beat him.
Organ is a tall, imposing Victor Frankenstein, his smile arrogant and his words fearless as defies his white-haired, God-fearing father (a beseeching, elegant Kieran Connolly) in his quest to assemble cadaver parts in his laboratory and resurrect them into a new life. Organ’s Dr. Frankenstein registers pure horror and disgust at the creature he has brought to life. The scene of abject rejection of the Creature by his creator echoes Michelangelo’s famous hand reaching to God. Here the creator is repulsed.
Hackler’s kind, blind scholar enters the scene playing the fiddle and encouraging his sweet daughters to carry on despite their poor dwelling in a hut in the woods. The scene in which Hackler’s sightless scholar touches the face of the battered, wandering Creature and doesn’t flinch in horror is exquisite. We believe this trust enables the scholar to teach the Creature to love music and read everything from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Goethe’s romantic tales of melancholy heroes who die for love. Hackler also doubles as a game gravedigger, comic in his willingness to help young Victor find a fresh female corpse.
Jolly Abraham, as Victor’s long-suffering fiancé, projects a sensual urgency in her attempt to draw her restless, questing love to her heart. The scene with the Creature are difficult and sensual in an entirely different and terrifying way.
Ferrell moves his 18-member company steadily toward a howling conclusion that we know is coming, but nevertheless find shocking. Like a recent adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde performed at Theatre Three, this Frankenstein reframes our view of monsters to feel greater empathy with the poor creature as victim. Must the master feel the slave’s pain? If we made a thing, if we brought it to life, are we not responsible for the consequences of our actions?
Good questions for our times. Go prepared to flinch and feel and think.