Stage Door Review 2023

Frankenstein Revived

Monday, August 28, 2023


by Morris Panych, choreographed by Stephen Cota, directed by Morris Panych

Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford

August 24-October 28, 2023

Frankenstein: “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death” (Frankenstein, Ch. 4)

Frankenstein Revived, now receiving its world premiere at the Stratford Festival, is Morris Panych’s latest physical theatre piece. It is wordless and tells only through movement, gesture and dance the story of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel about a man who endows an inanimate creature with life. Visually, the production presents one striking scene after another. But, handsome as it is, the show merely retails the plot in pantomime and fails to stimulate either the emotions or the intellect.

Frankenstein Revived is not Panych’s first attempt at physical theatre. In 2008 Stratford presented Panych’s retelling of Moby Dick in this same mode. But Panych’s most famous example of physical theatre remains his production of The Overcoat, based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol and created with Wendy Gorling, that premiered in Vancouver in 1997. In terms of movement, Frankenstein Revived is superior to The Overcoat in that it employs real dancers. The Overcoat involved actors merely moving about in concerted patterns but never essaying any dance moves. The result was rather like an airplane that only taxied but never took off. In Frankenstein Stephen Cota has choreographed complex floor-oriented movements as in modern dance along with the airborne leaps, turns and twirls of ballet.

Everyone knows that Shelley’s tale has inspired hundreds of movies, the most iconic being the 1931 film by James Whale. Less well known is that it has inspired stage works. The earliest, appearing in 1823, was Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, which Shelley herself saw and approved of. The most recent is the Frankenstein (2011) by Nick Dear staged and filmed by the Royal National Theatre. The story has inspired operas – a Canadian one by Andrew Ager in 2010 and an American one by Gregg Kallor to premiere at Arizona Opera on October 13 this year. The notion of telling Mary Shelley’s tale through movement is also not new. The Royal Ballet staged and filmed Liam Scarlett’s ballet Frankenstein in 2016.

Morris Panych’s adaptation does away with the introductory narrative of Captain Walton, the explorer heading for the North Pole who picks up Victor Frankenstein and hears his story. Instead, it adds Mary Shelley herself as a character with the conceit that what we see on stage is what she is writing. If a scene does not run as she expects, she may interfere to change it as if doing a rewrite or she may show emotion when having to write some of the sadder scenes of the story such as William’s or Elizabeth’s deaths.

The main difficulty with the adaptation is that Stephen Cota’s choreography and Wendy Gorling’s movement direction seem to do nothing but reproduce the plot without explanation of who the characters are or what the story means. Anyone who does not know the novel will not know that Elizabeth is Victor Frankenstein’s cousin, that the little boy William is Victor’s brother rather than Elizabeth’s son and that Henry Clerval is Victor’s best friend and not just a schoolmate. Even if you know the novel, you will not understand why Panych deviates from the novel’s conclusion. It is actually far more powerful a scene to have the Creature weep over the already dead Frankenstein rather than be the one who kills him.

Within the piece itself, there is much that is unclear. The 14-member corps de ballet who take on numerous roles all play characters called “Elements”. What this means is explained nowhere in the programme. Dana Osborne has them all in variations of black dancewear. They raise Mary Shelley up at the start of the show and do so again at the end. They also surround the Creature when he commits suicide. They thus could be simply “elements” of the choreography.

Within the piece itself, there is also much that is repetitive. As in Panych’s two previous movement works, all the gestures are exaggerated and will remind people of what many take for silent movie acting – hands up shaking, fingers extended, to show surprise or wrist on forehead to show distress. But to these stereotypical gestures Gorling has trained the ensemble to lift any object is it given to full arm’s length. This would seem to indicate that the object is of some symbolic importance – like a wedding ring, a grimoire, galvanic electrodes. The problem is that Gorling does this with so many different objects that the gesture loses its meaning as an emphasis.

The same happens with all the train travel in the show. The first time Frankenstein takes a train it is represented cleverly by his sitting on cases on a luggage cart and imitating bouncing on the tracks. As it turns out, the action includes so many train trips done the same way that the newness wears off. With all this travel we also never know where we are. Only if you know the novel will you know that the ship at the conclusion is heading for the North Pole.

The show also features scenes that are simply undecipherable. In the key scene of Frankenstein’s animating the Creature, Panych has Frankenstein use giant galvanic electrodes twice to infuse life into the body without success. (The notion of using electricity as a reanimator derives from the 1931 movie not from Shelley.) Then Mary Shelley makes a motion and an enormous object descends from above and nearly touches the Creature. It looks like a red upside-down tree or a system of veins and capillaries. In the novel, Frankenstein gives life to the Creature with an elixir.

So what is this object? Since it doesn’t touch the Creature, it does not look like it is infusing it with anything. As it happens, that doesn’t matter, except that somehow it is Mary Shelley herself who animates the Creature not Frankenstein. It’s possible that we are meant to view the show as a tribute to Shelley as the Creator and the novel as her Creation. If so, all the characters merely become her puppets and do not have a life of their own, which is rather the reverse of what the novel is about.

Unfortunately, Panych introduces this idea of the Creature as a puppet early on. He shows Frankenstein suddenly shiver with revelation when he holds a wooden doll of William’s on high. This is precisely the wrong image to use. If Frankenstein is inspired by a doll to make a creature, he might as well make an automaton or a robot. The focus of the novel is of giving life to an inanimate object. The words “doll” or “toy” occur nowhere in the novel. Rather, Shelley has Frankenstein state, “One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?”

Even though the show never penetrates beneath the surface of the story to depict such essential questions as that above, the piece is eminently watchable even if you don’t aways know who is who. The afternoon I attended Devon Michael Brown took on the role of the Creature from Marcus Nance. Brown gave a spectacular performance.

Compressed into a few minutes Brown showed how the creature had to learn to stand and to toddle before settling into a forward lurching movement that he used for walking. Yet, the greatness of Brown’s performance was how naturally he demonstrated how the Creature continued to develop through its life as his lurching finally settled down into striding. Simultaneously, Brown showed how the Creature becomes used to wearing clothes, by the end even sporting a top hat like Frankenstein himself. What is missing from Panych’s treatment that would only enhance the role is the growing remorse that the Creature feels for killing after his rush of anger or revenge.

As Frankenstein, Charlie Gallant gives a performance of a completely contrasting kind to that of Brown as the Creature. Gallant effortlessness combines the elegance of a dancer with the physicality of an athlete. More than anyone, except Brown, you feel Gallant has completely taken over his role on a physical level. Near the end Frankenstein is required to leap over groups of “Elements” in pursuit of the Creature. This Gallant does as if it were a blend of ballet and parkour. Gallant is a constant pleasure to watch in both movement and mime.

The major figure given the least to do physically is Mary Shelley. She primarily appears on the sidelines scribbling madly with a long quill pen. Laura Condlln plays Shelley as an imperious yet sympathetic character. She has Shelley intervene in the story’s action with decisiveness, She also shows that Shelley becomes emotionally invested in her characters and has to overcome the difficulty attending the description of their demise.

Even with having only to sit, Sean Arbuckle makes a strong impression as the blind old man De Lacey (which for unknown reasons is spelled D’Lacy in the programme). De Lacey is central to Shelley’s narrative in revealing how much people’s fear of the Creature has to do with how he looks. The blind, kindly De Lacey accepts him as a fellow human being. It is a great pity that Panych glides over the De Lacey section of the novel so quickly, for this is where the Creature learns to speak and to read. This, of course, is difficult to show in a wordless dance-pantomime, but it is essential to probing one of the major questions that Shelley poses in her novel, namely “What makes a being human?” It is no wonder that Andrew Ager made the De Lacey sections a major portion of his opera.

Unless you are familiar with the novel, you will not really know that Henry Clerval nurses Frankenstein back to health after the shock Frankenstein suffers after animating the Creature. At the performance I attended Jason Sermonia played the role normally played by Devon Michael Brown. Sermonia has demonstrated his dancing prowess in numerous musicals at Stratford. Here Cota gives Clerval little to do until his struggle with the Creature. The Creature’s strength causes Clerval to spin in the air before landing all of which Sermonia accomplishes with ease. Sermonia’s performances makes one wish Cota has found more occasions to have characters leap instead of walk simply because it is so exciting.

Panych has the fine idea to have the Creature interact with three birds played by dancers Carla Bennett, Gracie Mack and Ayrin Mackie. Not fully aware of his strength, the Creature injures one of the birds. This scene brings out the Creature’s happiness at being in nature as well as the question of what is or is not natural. His accidental harming of a bird sadly leads the Creature to believe he is not part of nature. More scenes of the Creature in nature would help the work get closely to some of Shelley’s central concerns.

On the generally empty stage with minimal sets by Ken MacDonald, Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and composer David Coulter’s movie-soundtrack-like music is essential in creating an atmosphere of foreboding in a show that, despite its source, is strangely devoid of tension. Frankenstein Revived serves mostly to remind us of the episodes of Shelley’s story, if we already know it, rather than to involve us in them.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Laura Condlln as Mary Shelley, Marcus Nance as the Creature and Charlie Gallant as Victor Frankenstein; Laura Condlln as Mary Shelley; Marcus Nance as the Creature and Charlie Gallant as Victor Frankenstein; Devon Michael Brown as Henry Clerval. © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann.

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