About a decade-and-a-half ago, as technology was transforming stagecraft into something more cinematic, it became apparent that in addition to lighting and video advancement, theater wanted to Dolby-ize the theatergoing experience. Pulsating white noise could disguise clambering set changes (or mask audience indifference) and shock a play to life like auditory defibrillation. Over the years, adding cacophonous shards of music to non-musical plays has become a trope, often an annoying one.
Yet I confess that the effect has seldom been used more successfully than in the Nick Dear adaptation of Frankenstein, now at the Kalita Humphreys in Uptown, courtesy of Dallas Theater Center. The swell of industrial discordance as the audience wanders to their seats explodes in a flash of thunder that’s terrifying and alarming. We know we’re in for something macabre, and boy does the show deliver.
The first 10 minutes or so are essentially dialogue-free, filled with little more than tortured wails from the newly-birthed Creature (Kim Fischer), set to piercing music and horrific images, as this abomination of nature — a golem-like primordial wraith, seemingly comprised of mud and sinew — writhes exquisitely to life. Fischer is more wiry and waifish than the usual hulking monster we expect from the laboratory of Dr. F. (Alex Organ), who barely registers as a character throughout the first half of the play. But while less brutish and physically imposing, the Creature — initially more Lenny from Of Mice and Men than a bolt-necked Karloff — is repulsive, strong and, as it happens, smart. Like Tarzan, he’s a manifestation of Rousseau’s noble savage — gutteral, primal, revolting, yet still human. When he meets a kindly blind man (Blake Hackler), he learns language and poetry, and his sharp mind conceives of manmade constructs such as lying, betrayal and morality.
Much late Gothic/early Romantic literature — Mary Shelley’s included — is talky and moralizing. The Creature is a McGuffin around which bigger issues are debated by the civilized folk. (Shelley’s book steers clear of ever explaining how Frankenstein accomplished his miracle; Tesla coils and bubbling beakers are entirely a Hollywood addendum.) But Dear’s construction reverses the typical order: We start off following the Creature in his picaresque, an adventure in discovering his humanity, so that by the time we meet Frankenstein prattling on about whether man can play god, we see the putative hero as an insufferable dick. We know who the real victim is here, and it ain’t the guy with a girlfriend.
In fact, a subtle undercurrent about Frankenstein is what could be a latent homosexuality — he seems oddly immune to the beauty of his long-suffering fiancee Elizabeth (Jolly Abraham), whom he speak of and to with disparaging contempt; when he finally agrees to marry her, it’s more ploy than romantic gesture. We come to see Frankenstein not as a wayward genius, nor even grave-digging ghoul or mad scientist, but a frustrated and vindictive monster himself, capable of much worse crimes than the Creature has conceived. He uses the Creature’s desire to live and enjoy companionship as a weapon against him, not for some strategic advantage but just to be cruel.
Hackler does a standout job as the blind man and in Act 2 as one of Frankenstein’s minions, but there are two stars who make this show. One, of course, is the astonishing performance by Fischer, who grabs you from the opening seconds and takes us entirely through the lifecycle with him, from a vacant, lobotomized mass of amoral cells (which I call the “Eric Trump Phase”) to sophisticated nemesis, beset as much by his need to connect even to his torturer as his pain at living. And the other star is director Joel Ferrell, who tells the story with compelling visuals and a haunted house ethos. At first, this Frankenstein seems scary; but as it delves deeper in the soulless inhumanity of our species, it becomes something much worse: prescient.
— Arnold Wayne Jones