By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Beneath the jagged scars on the heaving chest of Dr. Frankenstein's scary monster beats the heart of a true romantic. Just whose heart it is--or used to be--we can't be sure. The giant creature is a crazy quilt of random body parts stitched together by a mad scientist and brought to life by a bolt of lightning. But there definitely seem to be aspects of a frustrated young Romeo inside the old monster in Dallas Children's Theater's visually rich, surprisingly touching production of Frankenstein, now onstage at the Baker Theater. If only he didn't look like such a walking cadaver wrapped in those bloody, tattered surgical gauzes, if only Victor Frankenstein had gone to the trouble of making a lady monster, too, this greatest of all horror tales might have had a happier ending.
Thomas W. Olson's lively but sometimes verbose script, originally developed at the Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis, sticks closely to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's 1816 literary masterpiece about a grief-stricken young scientist and the horrific experiment that results in a living, breathing monster. This is the third time DCT has produced this show, but it's the first time they've performed it in the company's grand new theater space. The production, directed by Artie Olaisen, overcomes the script's talkiness by keeping up a zippy pace and injecting some eye-popping technical effects (particularly the scene when The Creature comes to life). Zak Herring's massive set consists of a wall of towering white glaciers lit by a haunting full moon. That's also true to Shelley's original story, which takes Frankenstein all the way to the Arctic to search for his runaway monster.
Without the gothic melodrama of the old movies--no torch-waving villagers here, no bolts in The Creature's neck--the play still manages to deliver some delightfully terror-fraught moments balanced with a humanistic tone that builds enormous sympathy for the title character. It's impossible not to choke up a little when The Creature, played with great vocal power and physical grace by Douglass Burks, looks to his creator, Dr. Frankenstein (Brian Witkowicz), and asks, "Why did you make me ugly?'' This monster doesn't want to scare people out of their wits. The blind guy (Terry Vandivort) likes him fine. He's just so hideous to look at--think Mickey Rourke post-face-lift.
What fun Frankenstein is. Forget that it's called children's theater. This is simply first-rate theater, a memorable two hours of drama for any playgoer. Because of the subject matter, DCT recommends the show for kids age 10 and up. But at the performance reviewed, the audience included toddlers, teens and oldsters, and nobody fidgeted or took their eyes off the stage for a moment. In the scary parts, even the grown-ups screamed.
Every aspect of this production is designed and executed with an eye toward artistic impact. Linda Blase's moody lighting design results in deep, ghastly (in a good way) shadows against those rugged glaciers. Costumes by Leila Heise are elegant and understated. Special effects by Kineta Massey go whiz-bang-boom exactly when they should. Eerie sound effects and music by Marco Salinas are spot-on perfect.
The cast showcases some of the area's top young actors, notably Jack Birdwell, Petruchio in last summer's Shakespeare Fest Taming of the Shrew, here playing Dr. Frankenstein's friend Henry Clerval, and Amy Storemski, who was Roxanne in Plano Rep's Cyrano not long ago and here portrays Frankenstein's doomed fiancee, Elizabeth. DCT newcomer Witkowicz brings youthful exuberance and a well-trained voice to the role of Victor Frankenstein.
As serious drama, Frankensteinworks on several levels. It's a classic horror story, sure. But it also asks questions about the importance of physical beauty, the interference of science in the natural order of life and death, and the futility of revenge. By the end of the play, the issue is, who is the bigger monster, Dr. Frankenstein or the thing that's escaped his laboratory?
The great thing about watching plays with children is that they don't edit their emotions, and they frequently say out loud exactly what adults around them are thinking. Toward the end of this play, after the desperately lonely monster has begged in vain for Frankenstein to create a companion for him, a child sitting nearby neatly summed it up. "Poor guy,'' sighed the little one, perhaps wishing he could hug The Creature and take him home for supper.
There's bad theater and then there's mega-disaster with curtain calls. This comically rotten production is not a good start for Cargo, which co-produced Draculawith El Centro's drama department. From notes scribbled during Drac's three long acts: "Lights too dim to see actors' faces''; "Interminable set changes''; "Fog machine fills theater with acrid cloud--actors coughing, audience suffocating''; "Van Helsing character talks like Zsa Zsa, says 'She iss dyink.''' And that's not the half of it.