Frankenstein Revived At The Stratford Festival
Frankenstein Revived by Morris Panych at the Avon Theatre is a riveting piece of theatre and quite unlike anything I have ever seen at the Stratford Festival.
Frankenstein Revived is an adaptation of the famous 1818 epistolary novel “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” by teenaged Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. That book emerged from a story writing contest among Mary, her cradle-robbing husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. Mary’s effort not only outshone the efforts of the two men but, arguably, created two new literary genres – horror and science fiction.
In Frankenstein Revived, Panych hews closely to the plot of Shelley’s novel. If you are familiar with the Frankenstein story only from the many film adaptations the novel has spawned, some plot elements may come as a surprise. And in this era of trigger warnings I should note that some of the scenes, especially in the second act, are truly gruesome and probably not suitable for young children.
What makes Frankenstein Revived a must-see this season for anyone at all interested in what can be accomplished on a stage on which the theatrical imagination is fully deployed is that Panych has eschewed words and tells the tale entirely through movement, music, dance, and pantomime. In this he is more than ably abetted by Wendy Gorling (movement choreographer), Stephen Cota (dance choreographer), and David Coulter (music).
Panych is director as well as adapter and as such will no doubt get the lion’s share of credit for this remarkable achievement. Yet I can’t help thinking that Frankenstein Revived is the result of a seamless collaboration among four exceptional theatre artists.
The movement Panych and his collaborators use in Frankenstein Revived struck me as a combination of old time melodrama cliches, silent movie emoting, 1920’s German Expressionist techniques, and broad pantomime. Remarkably, the result exhibits none of the cringe-worthy excesses that list of antecedents might suggest. I found the techniques instantly engaging and Panych and company held me rapt throughout.
In a wonderfully meta-theatrical touch, Panych has made Mary Shelley a major character in the play. Unseen by her characters, she haunts the periphery of nearly every scene. At various moments she seems to be composing her story as the action transpires. At others she seems to be revising her plot. At other moments still she seems to be suffering along with her characters.
As a result, Frankenstein Revived emerges not just as a meditation on what it means to be human, but as a metaphor for the process of artistic creation itself, with its exhilarating triumphs and soul-crushing doubts. I found it touching that in the play’s final moments the only one who truly cares for The Creature is his true creator, Mary Shelley.
Another of Panych’s inspired touches is his use of a fourteen-strong corps of exceptionally agile actors and dancers listed as “Elements” in the programme. They maneuver set pieces on and off stage in the most theatrically imaginative ways and do oh so much more. They inhabit supporting characters; they become a cast of hundreds when villagers are pursuing “The Creature;” at other moments they function as unseen facilitators of the action in a way that reminded me of Bunraku puppeteers.
Panych, Gorling, and Cota couldn’t have pulled it off without a crackerjack cast and this ensemble delivers. Laura Condlln, who was such a standout in Casey and Diana, creates a Mary Shelley of great depth in a part that could easily have become a cardboard cutout.
Charlie Gallant is a revelation as Victor Frankenstein. He scored earlier this season as Lord Willoughby, an interpolated character in Richard II. His Victor raises him to a much higher level of achievement. He moves with a dancer’s grace and I dare say he may be the sexiest actor to ever assay the role.
I have known Marcus Nance as a supremely suave and elegant singer so his outing as Victor Frankenstein’s “Creature” (as the programme bills him) came as yet another revelation.
He manages to be supremely creepy, even terrifying, while remaining utterly sympathetic. The fact that costume designer Dana Osborne has provided him with a brilliantly stitched together body stocking helps immeasurably. As the Creature grows into to his revivified humanity, Osborne outfits him with ever more complete nineteenth century outfits.
Among the Elements, the dancer Devon Michael Brown stands out as Victor’s friend Henry Clerval. Panych and Gorling make excellent use of his extraordinary acrobatic abilities.
David Coulter’s score, if that’s the proper term (and I’m not sure it is), is like another principal character. While there are musical elements within it, his score struck me more as the soundtrack of a film, replete with sound effects and percussive elements that propelled the mimed action of the play. I for one would welcome the opportunity to hear it as a stand-alone piece.
Mention must also be made of the contributions of Panych’s husband, Ken MacDonald, whose set, manages to be simultaneously minimalistic and monumental, and the kinetic, ever-restive lighting of Kimberly Purtell.
I have frequently been underwhelmed by the new plays Stratford has presented over the years, but this season is an exception. Casey and Diana and Frankenstein Revived are both world premieres that deserve to have a rich afterlife.
Panych has a remarkable range, as evidenced by the terrific work he did as director of Mark Crawford’s political comedy, The Gig, earlier this season, which couldn’t be more different from Frankenstein Revived. He also wrote and directed the slender musical Wanderlust, based on the life story of Canadian poet Robert Service, at Stratford in 2012, which didn’t impress me as much as his current offering.
More than a decade later, Frankenstein Revived shows him in full control of his considerable powers both as writer and director. The play may be praised with faint damns by some who will brand it as “experimental theatre.” Don’t be fooled. This is a vital, gripping theatrical experience. Let’s hope it presages more frequent visits by Panych to Stratford’s stages.
Frankenstein Revived continues at the Avon Theatre through October 28, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.
Footnote I: I can’t help noticing that the Festival seems to have used the “Angels” of Richard II and the “Elements” of Frankenstein Revived to keep the company’s exceptional corps of dancers more or less intact as they await what I trust is the imminent return of Donna Feore. Hats off to the programming genius who seized this opportunity!
Footnote II: This season marks the emergence of two exceptional young leading men and the overdue return of a third. I can’t help wondering whether in Charlie Gallant of Frankenstein Revived, and Liam Tobin and Aaron Krohn of Spamalot we may be seeing the rise of a new generation of Stratford Festival stars who will eventually assume the mantles of the Abbeys, Goads, Sharas, and McCamuses of yesteryear.
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