Since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in 1818, it has been interpreted and adapted in many ways. In 2011, a stage adaptation by Nick Dear debuted at the National Theatre in London, and this weekend its California premiere opened at A Noise Within in Pasadena. While Dear’s adaptation is in some ways problematic, this production does its best to mitigate that, with the Creature taking center stage in a reexamination of the nature versus nurture debate that is so inherent to the source material.
The primary difference between Shelley’s novel and Dear’s play is that the play is told from the point of view of the Creature (Michael Manuel). Directed here by Michael Michetti, the story begins with the Creature’s “birth” in Victor Frankenstein’s (Kasey Mahaffy) laboratory. Immediately rejected by his creator, the Creature escapes into the world, where he quickly realizes his inhuman appearance causes others to fear and abuse him. The first friend he finds, an old man named De Lacey (Harrison White), seemingly only accepts him because he is blind. De Lacey helps the Creature learn how to speak, read, and reason, but the friendship ends in tragedy when his son, Felix (Thomas Hobson) and daughter-in-law, Agatha (Tania Verafield) finally lay eyes upon the Creature and recoil in horror. Eventually, the Creature makes his way back to Frankenstein, begging him for a female companion. But, of course, this request also ends horribly, with Frankenstein’s hubris and obsession with playing God ultimately destroying his own family.
Before discussing the many merits of this production, I must first take a moment to mention that in adapting Shelley’s text, Dear opted to add more sexual violence against women. In his version, before the Creature murders Elizabeth (Erika Soto), Victor’s wife, he also rapes her. Thankfully, the creative team at A Noise Within opted to not include the degrading and unnecessary change in this production. The fact that it exists in the adaptation at all is frustrating, especially since much has been written about the unconventional feminism of Shelley’s novel. None of that really comes through in the stage version. The only female characters are extremely subservient to their male counterparts, and Frankenstein in particular is a poster child for misogyny. When the Creature asks him to build a female, he contemplates out loud, “what are women good at?” He struggles to come up with any answer. But many feel that Shelley made a very intentional choice in making the female characters so disposable and think she was subtly calling out patriarchal ideals and toxic masculinity. Case in point, the fact that Frankenstein ultimately refuses to build a female Creature, hinting that the idea of a woman who might turn out in an unexpected way, a woman whom he may not be able to control, frightens him. He has a very specific ideal in his head for the way women are “supposed” to behave and is unable to solve the problem of how a female creation would firmly fit that mold, so he abandons the project.
The Creature is truly the protagonist of this adaptation, with Frankenstein himself not having any real presence until the second half. An extended sequence at the top of the show follows the Creature as he attempts to stand and understand the basic mechanics of human movement. Starting the story at this point is not ideal for momentum, and it takes things a while to progress in a way that feels satisfying. This production, which runs a full two hours without an intermission, would likely benefit from a breather for the audience, particularly because the first showdown between Creature and Creator does not occur until probably an hour in.
This adaptation argues that nurture, or lack thereof, is responsible for the Creature’s crimes. This way of thinking suggests that perhaps Frankenstein himself is the true monster. Perhaps in an intentional directorial choice to emphasize this point, Manuel’s performance is almost more understated than Mahaffy’s. Manuel has no easy task, with a highly physical role and long stretches of time onstage alone. But as he progresses in his learning, he plays the Creature as almost soft, thoughtful, introspective—you sympathize with him often, even after he chooses to violently retaliate against the society that has shunned him. Meanwhile, Mahaffy’s Frankenstein is manic and loud, stomping around the stage with dark circles painted under his eyes, unraveling more and more as the action approaches the climax. There is truly nothing about him that is sympathetic, especially given his complete disregard and lack of respect for Elizabeth and everyone else in his life. Unlike in the novel, this Creature was not cursed from birth, and Frankenstein was not doomed from the moment he gave him life—the Creature has goodness inside of him, and with proper care things may have turned out differently.
Issues with pacing aside, the design elements of this production are impressive, particularly the lighting (Jared A. Sayeg) and sound (Robert Oriol). Oriol also composed some original music that accompanies the show, doing much of the heavy-lifting in terms of setting the eerie, gothic tone. Parts of the story are told in a very artistic, abstract way, such as when the Creature fantasizes about his companion coming to life and they engage in a haunting, eerie ballet. Overall, fans of the source material will be intrigued by this different take on Frankenstein, although whether the flipped perspective does much to add to the story is up for debate.
Frankenstein runs at A Noise Within through September 8th. The running time is two hours, no intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.