Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Frankenstein (Mortal Toys)

Photo/Sara Velas

Behind a miniature proscenium, a watercolor sky scrolls across the background, changing from the light blue sadness of one scene to the autumnal dreams of the next. From offstage, there are the sounds of wind chimes, and perhaps the fragments of a toy piano. In the foreground, walking over literally rolling hills, is a fragile man, looking like a cutout from an early Victorian fashion designer's sketchbook. This is Victor Frankenstein, pondering the death of his younger brother, William, at the hands of his creation, the Monster, and the show is a dark yet vibrantly creative retelling of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein (now subtitled, "Mortal Toys").

The production, written by Erik Ehn and directed by Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson (of Automata), is part of HERE Arts Center's Dream Music Puppetry Program, and that describes it perfectly: as visually beautiful yet elusive as a dream, and only occasionally as soporific as one, heavy with stilted dialogue ("Wandering spirits/take me as your companion/make me into breath") delivered by Chris Payne and Dana L. Wilson, two real life actors who sit, wooden as puppets, in the wings of the miniature stage. Though they are visible, their stillness makes it seem as if they are inhabiting those paper shells, as if, like us, they were lost in the drama, too.

The play floats between a series of worlds, from the artistic details of the two-dimensional puppets and the impressionistic backgrounds, to Severin Behnen's haunting electronic score (think The X-Files, but subtler), and to the mixed media of stop-motion "electric" dreams that aim to illuminate the flashbacks of what little kindnesses Frankenstein and his Monster have known. As such, it is never wholly present, not enough to affect or compel the audience toward anything specific, but enough to dazzle them as a liquid piece of art which, in snatches of scenes, are utterly compelling. Of particular note is the doubling effect Geiser and Simpson achieve, in which a puppet on stage is emphasized by a larger version, as when the Monster appears in his monolithic desolation (like an Easter Island head) to proclaim "I am malicious because I am miserable" or when Captain Walton (remember him?) uses his telescope to observe a shivering Frankenstein making his way along the Arctic coast.

The overlap of scenic layers within the boxed-in stage gives for an illusion of depth, as do the play's poetic narrative and various devices, but it all works to give the audience a sensation of freefall in which time slows, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, we are simply lost amidst our thoughts.

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