Expressive puppetry helps bring 'Frankenstein' to life

Times Staff Writers

One of the best theatrical performances this season comes from an actor who stands about a foot tall and weighs less than a pound. He can't speak, so a narrator delivers his lines for him. His joints are stiff, but his arms move gracefully. He can traverse vast distances in a few leaps. And he's made almost entirely of wood.

If you haven't already guessed, this remarkable thespian is a puppet. He currently plays the role of The Creature in Automata's superb production of "Frankenstein: Mortal Toys," at the Velaslavasay Panorama, with final performances today and Sunday.

The idea of performing Mary Shelley's classic tale with a cast of puppets may sound like a gimmick. And it is, to a certain extent. But the concept has depth. Just as Victor Frankenstein made The Creature out of dead flesh, the creative team behind "Frankenstein: Mortal Toys" gives life to its menagerie of inanimate puppets, endowing them with the power to think and to feel. In other words, to be human.

"Thus, strangely, are our souls formed," says one of the characters. This production uses an adaptation by Erik Ehn, who has significantly pared down Shelley's novel and rearranged some of the events.

Victor Frankenstein is a young Swiss scientist who becomes obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. He tries to create a new breed of mankind but he becomes repulsed by its ugliness. The Creature, abandoned by his maker, wanders the countryside in loneliness and anger. Victor tells the entire story in flashback while recuperating on a ship in the Arctic Circle.

Designed and directed by Susan Simpson and Janie Geiser, this production operates on the twin aesthetics of compression (narrative) and miniaturization (mise en scene). The proscenium is not much bigger than a shoe box, giving the impression of an elaborate children's diorama brought to life. A team of four (Simpson, Geiser, Eli Presser and Sarah Brown) operates the puppets and the scenery. To the sides of the stage, two narrators (Chris Payne and Dana Wilson) provide the voices for all the characters.

The show's visual influences range far and wide. The two-dimensional feel and use of shadows suggest the wayang style of puppetry from Indonesia. At a few points in the story, a movie is projected onto the stage, featuring what appears to be stop-motion animation (arguably a high-tech form of puppetry).

Occasionally, the show threatens to tip over into high-art pretension. The story is essentially humorless and the performers move the puppets with a meditative slowness. The drone tones of Severin Behnen's score enhance the solemn ambience.

But this is foremost a production of ultra-restrained elegance and arresting beauty. A forest of trees moves and shifts as if enchanted. A dream that Victor experiences is enacted above him in an enclosed nimbus.

Though limited in range by definition, the puppets are highly expressive in their gestures and movements. Wooden acting has seldom seemed so lifelike.


'Frankenstein: Mortal Toys'

Where: The Velaslavasay Panorama, 1122 W. 24th St., Los Angeles

When: 3 and 8 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Sunday

Price: $10-$15

Contact: (213) 746-2166 or

Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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