More than 200 years have passed since Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” first terrorized the reading public in an anonymously published first edition. The novel’s grip on the imagination has only grown stronger as scientists continue to play God with nature.
The story is now a cautionary myth, interpreted and reinterpreted by artists from all disciplines who never lack for contemporary analogies. If the threat of nuclear Armageddon diminishes, global warming is ready to pick up the apocalyptic slack.
Returning to the literary source instead of one of the myriad pop-cultural adaptations, Four Larks, the inventive interdisciplinary performance company, has created a fascinating creature from the bones of Shelley’s novel. The production, which is having its world premiere at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, incorporates the book’s prose and narrative arc in a collage that is also a freehand musical homage.
A fusion of music, innovative design and physical theater, the work, adapted by Mat Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Jesse Rasmussen, is contained in a set by Peters-Lazaro that is itself a work of art. The stage presents a diorama of humanity’s insatiable quest for knowledge.
Books and globes line the shelves in a room full of skeletons and scientific equipment. Shelley’s subtitle (“or, The Modern Prometheus”) underscores the dangers in the monomaniacal pursuit of research that tests the bounds of mankind’s limits.
The production, directed and composed by Sweeney, has an elegant fluidity that at this point surpasses the handling of the adaptation. Visually, this “Frankenstein” is enthralling; narratively, the result is often blurrier.
Too much is being attempted in this 75-minute piece, which intermixes swaths of Shelley’s novel with other literary and biographical material. The combination of compression and expansion makes it difficult in the early going to track the characters.
The music further challenges theatergoers to find their footing. The novel’s introductory frame inspires a kind of military musical interlude that isn’t easy to reconcile with what follows.
Sweeney’s classical score is more effective when the musicians embed themselves in the staging. The company isn’t always able to meet the vocal demands of the music, but the reaching for notes higher than what is feasible lends an eeriness to the production that seems thematically fitting.
This “Frankenstein” truly comes alive after the birth of the creature. Max Baumgarten, wearing protective kneepads, wires and bandage-like covering, portrays the monster with a fiendish vividness. The physical language of his performance is far more communicative than any technological special effects.
The creature’s innocent longing for connection is given its due in an adaptation that doesn’t seek to exploit the horror. We see this assemblage of body parts awakening to knowledge. Stirred by language and enticed by companionship, he spends his days peering into a happy household, where a blind father (Philip Graulty) strums his guitar as his family surrounds him with love.
The turn in this story from gentle voyeurism to revenge is thrillingly realized in an inventive movement-theater style that contains some of the most harrowing bone crunches I’ve seen or heard onstage. The confrontation between the creature and his creator, Victor Frankenstein (Kila Packett), has a frightening intensity, though Victor’s story gets somewhat lost in the welter of characters, which includes Joanna Lynn-Jacobs’ Elizabeth Lavenza and Craig Piaget’s Henry Clerval.
In devised work of this kind, it’s the dramatic writing that often gets short shrift. The obscure presence of Mary Shelley (Claire Woolner) ensures that the novel is never out of sight, but the complexity of this additional layer muddles the storytelling.
I was spending a good deal of time trying to sort out my memory of the novel from what was being presented — a sign that something is off in the balance between freedom and fidelity. Peters-Lazaro’s choreography, Laskfar Vortok’s projections and Alex Hawthorn’s sound design synchronize impressively. But the creative team’s reliance on the book sets up expectations of narrative clarity that might not otherwise be an issue in a more purely experimental theatrical form.
Still, the collaborative ingenuity of this “Frankenstein” is undeniably impressive. Four Larks has created something at the Wallis that deserves more life. I hope this uncategorizable creation will get the opportunity to stagger into maturity.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through March 7
Info: (310) 746-4000 or thewallis.org/Frankenstein
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes