The Flying Machine's Frankenstein is more fable-like in duration and style than it is reminiscent of Mary Shelley's gothic nightmare. I am glad of it! I have had enough poor adaptations and loud, clanking monsters to satisfy my need for bastardized gothica. Look no further than Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation to look upon a real monster. I do not mean to cast a negative light on Shelley's book; it is a great book. The contemporary artists who fail so magnificently at adapting it, on the other hand? Well, fortunately for them, the Flying Machine is here to show us all how to adapt bravely. The ensemble tosses Shelley's narrative to the curb and starts fresh with the tale of a young scientific savant, Victor Frankenstein (Robert Ross Parker), and his penchant for giving life to toads and drunks.
Victor is plagued by thoughts of his deceased mother and a puzzle box he never solved. Driven by his haunting memories, his life is built around using his genius at solving impossible scientific problems. Problems like death and biological inferiority, for example.
In a sweet, socially awkward scene between Victor and his long-suffering maid, Sonia (Adrienne Kapstein), the eccentric, obsessive scholar reveals he has recently revived a hapless river toad. When he cautiously carts his beloved marvel off to class to show his professor and fellow scholars, he triggers a series of events that will catapult him through acts of pride, violence, stupidity, pathos, redemption, and, ultimately, contentment.
Thematically, the production immediately calls to mind Russian and Eastern European masters such as Kafka, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky (program notes cite his Crime and Punishment as an additional source). Director Joshua Carlebach uses a bizarre, almost antediluvian aesthetic to highlight the deeper questions at stake in Shelley's tale. In Carlebach's world, characters are not quite human, which seems to imply we are all a tad monstrous at our core.
Along with writer Jason Lindner, Carlebach homes in on the philosophical, but also scientific, ramifications of human interference in the natural world. Victor is most obsessed with reversing entropy, the second law of thermodynamics (for example, perfume sprayed into the air cannot condense back into a bottle). His obsession leads him to break a law not only of the physical world but of the universe itself. Death cannot be conquered. But where Victor is stymied, Carlebach and Lindner offer a glimmer of hope. Together, they posit a world that can be changed, but perhaps should be changed only in small ways with slight acts of kindness and compassion.
The set, designed by Marisa Frantz, is immediately remarkable: a series of windows randomly attached to one another flank either side of the stage to create two transparent, changeable, moveable pieces endlessly reconfigured and manipulated by the actors. The window units do much to drive the whirlwind of events in this momentous single night in Victor's life, and do much more in suggesting a sense of location and atmosphere in each scene. With the addition of an upstage window unit on pulleys, the scenic elements alternate between practical and symbolic usage; clocks and guillotines come to mind. I will wager the ensemble will continue to discover new ideas in such a creative environment throughout the run.
With so many ideas, such clever design, and exemplary ensemble acting, what struck me most effective about Frankenstein were the moments of stillness and simplicity. Carlebach sets his scenes with Young Victor (Tami Stronach) so cinematically and delicately that innocence itself becomes a distant, untouchable world. The adult Victor's plight reminds me of the proverb that knowledge increases sorrow. In poor Victor's case, the more he knows of the world's systems and of science's functions, the less able he is to appreciate a cup of tea. The information makes him so anxious and troubled, he cannot live his life.
Carlebach and Parker effectively make the play turn from its manic course with nothing more than a music box. So as Victor learns he cannot conquer death, he also releases his hold on the childhood he can never recapture. It is an exquisite moment, dealt with lovingly, and it captures the grace and optimism of the Flying Machine.