by Jason Booker
To paraphrase Mary Shelley, nothing can come into existence with a basis in the past and there can be no future for it unless it lives in the present.
First, the present. Litmus Theatre has created Birth of Frankenstein, an hour-long show based on the writings of Shelley and her influential literary contemporaries. The play specifically focuses on the life of the author as it influences her well-known magnum opus, Frankenstein.
A collaboratively written piece, created by actors Claire Wynveen, Adriano Sobretodo Jr. and director Matthew Thomas Walker, Birth of Frankenstein tells the tale of Mary Shelley (Wynveen) using four actors to play multiple roles in fleshing out Shelley’s personal life. Within the opening minutes of the piece, death announces its presence with the demise of Mary’s mother during childbirth, followed by her Catholic upbringing by her political father, Percy Shelley’s courtship of her and her odd connection to stepsister Claire Clairmont (Tosha Doiron) and Claire’s lover, Lord Byron (Adrian Proszowski). As a result, only the final ten minutes of the show deal with Mary’s fictional monster and his creator (Sobretodo), recapping commonly-known details and incorporating a few newly illuminated portions of her life into the story.
Birth of Frankenstein tries to be unique to the best of its abilities, staging Litmus’s version on a classic novel of horror in a unique setting.
What is fascinating about this oft-told tale is Litmus’s interpretation of the subject. They have devised a work to be staged with live piano accompaniment in The Parlour Room of a specific church in the downtown core of Toronto. The audience sits around the edges of the room and watches the performers transform the space into a different era before the building was even completed and a series of different settings (including the grave of Mary’s mother) using only a large four-poster bed and a heavy wooden table.
Then the past. Birth of Frankenstein tries to be unique to the best of its abilities, staging Litmus’s version on a classic novel of horror in a unique setting. However, by not acknowledging that the audience is in a church or creating an alternate space for spectators to travel to or through - potentially a sideshow or carnival - the main selling feature of this production seems wasted. The purpose of site-specific work would seem to be shifting audience interaction and perception of the work, but seating everyone in a theatrical manner to stare ahead at the action in a room that is treated as a theatre by the creators does not seem to employ the device to its best advantage, as the work presently fails to speak directly to the repurposed location and could have been created for almost anywhere. By not addressing the issue of where the space is or why the play needed to be staged here, there is no connection to be made for an audience, no way into the history being played out before our eyes.
Sadly, even, much of the interpretation’s unique take – focusing not on the monster and his maker but on the writer hiding behind all that – has been covered before in works like Ken Russell’s pulpy film, Gothic. Among the other borrowed pieces of the past: the piano composition by Mariel Marshall resembles an old silent film score and the lighting is largely by flickering candles, which cast huge shadows on the bare walls – shadows which strongly echo some of the many filmed versions (in particular James Whale’s classics) of Shelley’s tale of creation, human nature and loneliness. A story around a campfire, this is not.
Birth of Frankenstein strongly adapts what has come before, knowing their historical and literary precedents, but not building off that base with enough confidence and originality, to address an audience in a modern and direct manner and make the tale their own. Instead, read the novel again.
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