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Christopher Donahue and
Jake Weber in Monster
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Readers first encountering Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are often astonished to discover how different it is from the images that various film versions have etched into the collective memory. The Shelley novel, told as a series of tales within tales, depicts Victor Frankenstein's creature as an innocent abandoned by its creator. The pathetic fellow, patched together from stolen body parts and infused with life by a method Shelley does not describe, wants nothing more than a mate with whom he can settle down and with whom he can share the great writers who've caught his fancy--Plutarch, Goethe and Milton.

Apparently playwright Neal Bell was one of those taken aback when he read the Shelley classic. In dramatizing the book and renaming it Monster, however, Bell has remained no more faithful to the original than any of the many others who have previously seen Shelley's work as open to all sorts of treatment and interpretation.

Bell has retained Frankenstein's fundamental story-telling device and the barest bones of Shelley's narrative. His play starts more or less as the book does: a sea captain encounters Victor Frankenstein on a journey to the North Pole and passes on the saga as told to him by the forlorn doctor. Bell's version also keeps to the notion that the marauding monster is initially benign, guided solely by the desire for love. But, beyond that, this revision is so loosely lifted it practically lies around the stage like body parts that Doctor Frankenstein has stolen but not yet pieced together. Bell has produced his own dramaturgical monster, an overwritten opus that is over-directed by Michael Greif and overacted by seven players, all of whom look as if they'd been jolted into action by the lightning that, at one point, animates one of Bell's stage monsters.

Certain he has mastered the science of reanimation, ambitious Victor Frankenstein (Jake Weber) curtly turns his back on the Creature (Christopher Donahue) that he's made and given breath. Thinking he's rid of the fellow, the doctor resumes his more romantic quest of marrying his young and pretty childhood playmate Elizabeth (Annie Parisse), whom his stern father (Michael Cullen) and shrewish mother (Christen Clifford) had adopted. But the wandering Creature continues to cross Victor's path, begging for a companion. "I w-a-a-a-a-a-nt..." he repeats with a plaintive wail. When he doesn't get what he w-a-a-a-a-a-nts, he starts killing Victor's friends and associates. The Creature longs to die if his wish for a romantic union can't be realized; meanwhile, Victor tramps about Europe feeling guilty and declaiming his fears and philosophies.

In the Classic Stage Company newsletter, Bell writes: "One thing I always say to my students is that a reason you write is to find out what it is that you're trying to write about." He goes on to explain: "What I discovered was not the idea of Frankenstein that I'd always had in my head, that Victor Frankenstein's main sin is trying to be Godlike, trying to do what man is not supposed to do...I found the novel to be more about creation and the responsibilities that creator and created have for each other." There is some of that in what Bell has wrought. "Who made you? God made you," Victor tells the imploring Creature, who asks as the lights go out to signal the end of the first act: "Where has He gone?"

Also embedded in Bell's clangorous drama, however, is a muddled treatise on doppelgangers and the pitched battle between ego and id that they often represent. Most of the time, the battle at hand is with sexual impulses and the perceived need to repress them. Whether Bell is aware of what he's inserted in his script or not, it's got a lot to do with internalized homophobia; he introduces the theme early on when Victor--in one part of an ongoing discussion of dreams that runs through the play--suddenly kisses his friend Clerval (Jonno Roberts) on the lips and says, "Dream about what you can't have." Later, the Creature himself plants a kiss on an unexpected party. At play's end, Victor and the Creature put their heads together in a homoerotic suicide pact that seems the only way out of their psychological plight.

Jake Weber, Annie Parisse,
and a menacing hand in Monster
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Adding to the sexual maelstrom set in frantic motion by Bell (which includes the image of a bucking Justine) is the abundance of full-frontal nudity. For example, Elizabeth bares her body when she and Frankenstein are at last hitched and on their way to the marriage bed. More significantly, the Creature is naked when he's "born," though he isn't the fine figure of a man that Shelley writes about who comes to see himself as deformed: He's brutish, hairy, lumbering, all but inarticulate, a man of untamed desires. He's Caliban. The Creature is a hulking aggregate of impulses that Dr. Frankenstein recognizes in himself, momentarily gives free rein to, and then unsuccessfully attempts to ignore. The doctor ultimately solves his internal conflict through self-destruction. As Oscar Wilde noted, "all men kill the thing they love"--and in time, Bell adds, that includes themselves. The dramatist doesn't seem to understand that, in one sense, he's written a play about a man and his inner child-molester. Maybe that's why he only succeeds in expressing psycho-sexual gobbledygook.

Greif, trying to realize the full potential of Bell's self-important text, has his players running back and forth constantly, passing each other on the fly. Even when they halt occasionally, they are always yelling at one another. Though the actors may only be doing what they've been asked to do, some of them might have found subtler behaviors. Because Weber, as Doctor Frankenstein, is on view constantly, his transgressions are the most egregious: He lopes about with arms extended, hands gripping the air, shaking violently. Christen Clifford, strident beyond the call of duty as both Mother Frankenstein and the ill-starred Justine, bellows as well. And so does Christopher Donahue as the Creature. If, only once, the Creature had simply whispered "I want," Bell might have achieved poignancy. Michael Pitt, assigned to play a barking dog, a talking cat, and Victor's apparently mentally-challenged brother, is so-so three times over. Annie Parisse is the only performer who speaks at normal room level; consequently, she's the only one who seems to understand the concept of nuanced acting.

In Monster's credit column is Robert Brill's sleek set, featuring a floor so polished it reflects the action and a set of parallel tracks hung upstage on which two long, translucent curtains are pulled back and forth. Kenneth Posner's lighting helps enormously to indicate the frigid climate that is emblematic of Frankenstein's sub-zero emotional temperament. Jess Goldstein's costumes skillfully aid in establishing and early 19th century sensibility. Jane Shaw's sound design is intricate, beginning even before the play with an extended Arctic-white-noise chord articulating the play's ominous moods. No question that Shaw has fulfilled the script's many requirements, including the sound of a boy dipping his hand repeatedly in water; but, unfortunately, there's far too much background noise. It's incessant, like the endlessly churning score of a 1940s film.

Monster's title is pointedly ambiguous, applying to both the Creature and Frankenstein. But the effect of the play itself is unambiguous. "Why does the spark go out?" the Creature wants to know as the second act ends. In this case, it's because there wasn't much of a spark to begin with.

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