Arts theater review

Frankenstein is an immaculate ode to its literary predecessor

I came in with high expectations, and they were certainly surpassed

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(Clockwise from left): Ashley Risteen, David Keohane, John Kuntz, Debra Wise, and Omar Robinson in 'Frankenstein.'
Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

Based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Play adaptation by Nick Dear
Directed by David R. Gammons
Central Square Theater
Oct. 4 – Nov. 4

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein 200 years ago on a bet. Also titled The Modern Prometheus, the story is probably the first-ever work of science fiction — plus, not a lot of 19-year-olds can brag that they invented an entirely new genre of literature. Shelley took the ghost story, turned it on its head, and begged the new discipline of science a burning question: how much is enough, and how far is too far?

When his ambitions lead him to drop out of college and play god in his father’s basement, Victor Frankenstein births an animate collage of human body parts and organs. The opening sequence of Gammons’s Frankenstein is physical, and almost carnal. When the Creature emerges, a hodgepodge of bodies, it meets its maker in a sequence that mirrors Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. And then the Creature is cast out.

Frankenstein is not a seven-foot-tall green zombie with peas for brains and hand-eye coordination riveling a toddler. Frankenstein’s Creature is at first an innocent abomination of science, abandoned and left to discover for itself what humanity is and where it falls in that definition. And just like in Shelley’s novel, Dear’s adaptation aptly resuscitates the themes of original sin, the moral responsibility of science, and the relationship between child and parent.

Frankenstein is a modern interpretation of its literary namesake. The play closely follows the novel, not sugarcoating the themes or falling back on lame pop-culture references. And by choosing not to age the production by plugging modern references, the play does a fantastic job of presenting just how timeless Shelley’s story is.

The cast is small — only five members — and the set is equally restricted. But The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater found a perfect balance between the demands of the story and a small production. All five actors rotate among 16 distinct characters in a seamless and flowing rhythm. At no point does this rotation distract from the storytelling; the choice to have each actor play multiple characters introduces a new idea: everybody in this story is interconnected and shares a relationship with one another.

The modular design of the set’s central structure allows multiple distinctive settings: it takes you from a mad scientist’s laboratory, to a small cottage in the countryside, to a villa on the Scottish shore, to a mountain top in Switzerland. The set design’s only detraction is that if you are in the front row, you might find yourself craning your neck whenever the action is on the second storey of the structure. Otherwise, I find that the use of a limited set and a limited cast employs the imagination — not so much that the story is hard to follow, but just enough to keep each audience member’s brain churning as the plot develops.

I personally read Shelley’s Frankenstein as an English assignment in high school. I remember feeling vast sympathy for the Creature and frustration with Victor Frankenstein. When I entered the theater, I could only vaguely remember the plot, but as the production progressed, my memory was spurred and I remembered all of these emotions. I was on the edge of my seat and fully experiencing the range of emotion evoked by the play. It was really like reading the story for the first time. Gammons’s presentation was on par with the literary counterpart; while most theatrical adaptations might lose some pieces of the masterwork in translation, this version of Frankenstein was beautifully and immaculately realized on the stage.

Content Warning: The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater would like you to know that this play has sexual content and violence. If you are a victim of sexual assault, this production might offend you.