Review: Frankenstein at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

I saw a figure. Or was it a reflection? A brilliant shimmering glimpse of Mary Shelley’s core essence, captured in theatrical perfection upon the Maryland Ensemble Theatre main stage as autumn brings a new adaptation of Frankenstein into their season. Devised by the ensemble under the riveting Direction of Co-Artistic Director Julie Herber, this new concoction is a striking and tragically beautiful amalgamation of Shelley’s most poignant words of prose. Serving as a visceral exploration of the iconic classic, the work is gripping as it extrapolates the answers to the questions, who is the creature and who is the creator? Visually stunning and physically jarring, the new adaptation is a masterpiece that sets a high bar for future devised projects to the stage.

The ensemble of Frankenstein of Maryland Ensemble Theatre
The ensemble of Frankenstein of Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Scenic Artist Cecelia Lee dives headlong into Herber’s approach to full exposure by stripping away the traditional walls of the main stage space, creating a vastly unending yet intoxicatingly intimate deepened space in which the show unfolds. Sterile while with cracked grays compose the floor and walls, with twisted hunks of PVC pipe jettisoned out from various surfaces, all of which creates a skeletal framework for the laboratory of Doctor Frankenstein while simultaneously serving as a warped representation of his own twisted psyche.

Layering onto this bizarrely engaging scenic artwork, Lighting Designer Paul Shillinger works severity in his design to capture moments of terror, pleasure, realization, acceptance, and madness among a plethora of other emotions that are stretched out through the performance. His use of distorted projections, often accompanied by the truly putrid and utterly revolting sound effects fabricated by Sound Designer Steve Younkins, overstimulate the senses. This serves as a running connection from the audience to the creature and creator; we are invited to share their sensory overload as the doctor questions his madness and the creature experiences life. Younkins infuses a layered cacophony of musical din into the work as well, adding to the already heightened sensory experience in a manner that truly captures the grotesque beauty of the piece.

While there is no upright monster with bolts protruding from its neck, Costume Designer Stephanie Hyder ensnares the essence of such composite creations in the show’s costume aesthetic. The ensemble wear flesh-toned garments riddled with stitch marks and exposed blood vessels, making them simultaneously the creations and rejected corpses of Doctor Frankenstein. Hyder’s approach to the monster itself is brilliance incarnate as she articulates the notion of his patchwork parts through fabric and his bulk through layers with hints of green. All of these echoes of the original textual description of the monster as displayed in symbolic fabric representation expresses a deep understanding of how to actualize vision without blatantly overstating it.

The ensemble of Frankenstein of Maryland Ensemble Theatre
The ensemble of Frankenstein of Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Sealing the work with her signature choreography, Director Julie Herber informs the movement of the ensemble with a jarring and yet startlingly fluid series of movements, many of which call for the core ensemble to move as one body and voice despite being sprawled across the space. Herber’s command of movement is remarkable, furthering the intricate layers of symbolic meaning put on display in the performance. There are moments when the ensemble jolt about as shades, nothing more than the echoed shadows of the corpses left behind both literally and figuratively. Working her choreography often into frenzied circles, Herber finds a way to showcase the vicious cyclical nature of the question that plagues both creature and creator and its haunting reality as translated to the stage is mind-blowing.

Herber works with various textual selections to expose the raw meat of Shelley’s classic tale in such a way that all of the main through-lines of the tale exist within the adaptation while still uniquely being its own presentation. The selection of Shelley’s most poignant words and putrid descriptions conglomerate into a creation of theatrical exposure that reveals raw and resonate pathos in the performers throughout the production. The fully actualized fusion of dance and text— like the moment of the book ballet where knowledge is expressed to the creature— is mesmerizing and draws you further into the fully saturated Frankenstein experience.

The ensemble of Frankenstein of Maryland Ensemble Theatre
The ensemble of Frankenstein of Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Ensemble performances consist of Isabel Duarte, Caitlyn Joy, Reiner Prochaska, Katie Rattigan, Tim Seltzer, and Vanessa Strickland, wherein each of the aforementioned take on snippets of textual delivery as the characters of Shelley’s novel. Two particularly shocking moments come from Strickland’s physical delivery of these characters, first as the servant convicted for a murder she did not commit, and later as the companion creation to the creature. Strickland’s ability to throw her body fully into these moments, letting her limbs and facial expressions serve as extensions of her emotional articulation makes her performance stellar. Other gripping performances are delivered by Seltzer, sitting peacefully as the blind man, Prochaska as the stalwart father of Victor, and Joy as the harried dying mother. A formidable ensemble with true drive in their performances, the devised work created among the ensemble is thoroughly informed, actively engaging, and compellingly complex.

Matt Lee as Victor in Frankenstein at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Matt Lee as Victor in Frankenstein at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Matt Lee lives in the production as Victor Frankenstein. Driven by a fervent burbling underlying madness that consumes his portrayal of the Doctor, Lee exists both presently and emotionally in the confines of the character as he is known. His textual delivery is filled with bite, particularly when he goes into a rage-match against the Creature (Jack Evans.) There is emotional clarity and purity in the raw urges and notions expressed by Lee throughout his time spent in the character on the stage. When facing off directly against Evans, Lee creates something astounding, a palpable intensity that permeates the room unapologetically and wholeheartedly.

Jack Evans as The Creature in Frankenstein at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Jack Evans as The Creature in Frankenstein at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Evans, as the creature, delivers a sensational performance that betrays the humanity of the character. From his staggering physicality to his affected speech and textual delivery there is something brutally crude about seeing this monster and it cleaves the heart in twain with jagged slicing moments that draw forth pity, empathy and compassion. Approaching a great deal of the creature’s point of view with harrowing moments of simplistic sensory overload, Evans lays an emotional and heart wrenching path to the audience inviting them to share his pitiable plight. Remarkable in every sense of the word, Evans delivers the most stunning moments in the show, soaking them with expressive heartbreaking emotional depth. A phenomenal delivery and stellar command of stage presence, Evans drives the performance to perfection with his rendition of the monster.

Edgy, exceptional, and ultimately rewarding, this new theatrical adaptation of Frankenstein will awaken the senses of the soul, entreat the emotions of the mind, and whisper the wonder of feelings undiscovered in this dark and truly favored classic of literary history.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission

Frankenstein plays through November 15, 2015 on the Main Stage of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in the Historic FSK Hotel building— 31 W. Patrick street in downtown historic Frederick, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 694-4744 or purchase them online.

Click here to read the interview with Director Julie Herber.

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