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.
Technical fouls-ups could almost be excused if any of the acting were decent. No such luck. In this production, the best performance is by the gal who takes the tickets and says, without wincing, "Enjoy the show." (Maybe she hasn't seen it.) Dracula (Tom Clyborne Finney) is the worst of the bunch. He doesn't suck blood--he just sucks. He wears a waist-length, stringy black wig and introduces himself to other characters as "Drac-yulia.'' His gray-green body makeup stops at his double chin (blend, blend), and he's about as scary as a bag of lint. Finney seems unaware of some of the basic rules of acting. He's slow to pick up cues, and he blows his one great line--"I never drink...wine''--by ignoring the pause. Sometimes Dracula enters scenes through a door but then exits around the edge of the flimsy set. The departures are punctuated with huge bursts of steam that shoot out from the wings like the 10:14 leaving from Track 9 (wait for me!).
In their continuous blooper reel of onstage flubs, actors in Dracula stumble over furniture, fumble lines, speak dialogue almost exclusively to the upstage wall, fetch unlit lamps to hold over corpses, clump up in little groups and mumble, stare out of covered windows and describe what they're seeing, catch hems of costumes in closing doors, exit stage right and inexplicably re-enter seconds later from stage left. If they were trying to play it for comedy, they would have to rehearse for weeks to make this many ridiculous mistakes.
And it just kept getting odder the night I was there. One actor's fly remained unzipped in Acts 2 and 3. The guy playing the ingenue's love interest started out butch and by the end was mincing and lisping so daintily he appeared to be auditioning for La Cage aux Folles. Stagehands came onstage and began shifting set pieces during scenes, as if they were fed up and ready to head home (could I get a ride?). Blame for all of this has to fall on the director, Dean Armstrong, a member of El Centro's theater faculty. What was he thinking? Why didn't the cast mutiny?
It was hard not to laugh at the titanic badness of it, and midway through the performance reviewed, the audience did start to giggle. We were afraid to laugh too hard, however, as we were outnumbered by the cast: 11 people onstage, nine out front. But when Van Helsing (Jarod Warren) and Jack Seward (John Carroll, founder of the Cargo Theatre Company) started draping garlic pods the size of turnips around the neck of the dying Lucy (Jana McGill), we couldn't help ourselves. Laughs came loud and long. I vass dyink.