Spark of Life

Now celebrating its fifth season, Redd Tale Theatre Companylaunches its “Summer of Creation” with two one-act plays that share a common theme. Pairing the enduring and immortal tale of Frankenstein with an original science fiction drama called Gabrielresults in a fascinating juxtaposition for theatergoers. Running till the end of August at the intimate Nicu’s Spoon Theater in Manhattan’s Garment District, this creation-themed double bill raises many questions about genetic experimentation and the horrors of science. The one-woman Frankenstein with Mary Shelley begins the evening in a decidedly Gothic fashion, while Gabriel owes more to the recent sci-fi film Splice about genetic engineers dangerously dabbling in the unhallowed arts.

Redd Tale Theatre Company member Virginia Bartholomew (last seen as Lady Macbeth in an New York Innovative Theatre nominated performance) tackles the triple roles of Frankenstein author Mary Godwin Shelley along with that of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his unnamed creation. Bartholomew is an engaging and charismatic performer in this truncated telling of the terrifying tale.

Bookended by appearances of Mary Shelley herself expounding on her masterpiece, most of the too-brief 45 minutes of this gripping one act centers around the half-mad scientist and the fiend that he brings to life. Although many of the transitions between the three characters could be made clearer, Bartholomew signals the changes with a simple tilt of the head, by reaching for the manuscript of the classic novel, or in a subtly different vocal intonation. Superb lighting also helps audience members recognize when the switches occur.

Frankenstein fanatics will find much to enjoy in Bartholomew’s compelling retelling of ambition run amok as personified in the rule-breaking doctor who is repulsed and haunted by what he ultimately creates. However, more of Shelley’s own personal (and tragic) history as well as deeper insight into how the story itself was created would help further flesh out what is in essence a candlelit storytime — albeit of one of the greatest stories ever told.

The second half of the evening, Gabriel, written by and starring Redd Tale Artistic Director Will Le Vasseur, is a clever updating of the Frankenstein myth with a contemporary bent. Set in modern-day England, brilliant geneticist Henry (Le Vasseur) has engineered a humanoid that can best be described as a man of the future.

In this provocative piece, Henry’s colleagues, Susan and Pierce (played by company member Cameran Hebb and co-artistic director James Stewart) have been invited to meet his creation, Gabriel, now fully grown after only six months. By unlocking the secrets of evolution, Henry constructed a living being that is an advanced version of what humans will become thousands of years from now.

Gabriel starts off a little shaky with a lot of mumbo jumbo, including a too slow section with projected graphs and charts. But the scientific and ethical questions posed by the drama are stimulating and thought-provoking.

Once Gabriel appears, he is, much like the Frankenstein monster, self-aware and highly intelligent, utilizing an outstanding 50% of his brain and communicating exclusively through telepathy (with Gabriel’s HAL 9000-like voice provided by Michael Komala). The perfectly-cast Michael Wetherbee, in an otherworldly and wordless performance, portrays Gabriel as an innocent, in direct contrast to the revenge-seeking wretch from Shelley’s story.

This futuristic one-act occasionally skirts melodrama with an unnecessary love story between the two leads that results in a handful of sexual identity platitudes better left for ABC’s Afterschool Specials. And the choice to set the action in the U.K. turns problematic since Hebb’s accent wavers throughout. But the ambition of the storytelling and the commitment of the actors to their parts pulls the piece through and makes an intriguing counterpart to the more traditional Frankenstein.

With very little budget and a company of talented members, Redd Tale once again proves itself a troupe to watch with Frankenstein with Mary Shelley and Gabriel. For its “Summer of Creation,” the cast and crew have created a challenging double feature sure to have audiences talking once they leave the theater.

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