Presented by and at the Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13 St., NYC, Jan. 27-Feb. 17.
At last Mary Shelley is sitting center stage—and in a spotlight. In Neal Bell's new play, "Monster," based on Shelley's classic 1818 novel, "Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus," the playwright has gone directly back to the source. Over the years, this too-oft-told tale has, in its many stage and film versions, acquired distorting barnacles that Bell is here determined to scrape away. What strengths exist in "Monster" relate intrinsically to the power of Shelley's original story.
Bell has sought to highlight the philosophical examination of Shelley's lofty themes. Such themes include the very nature of life and death, man as a god-like creator—and, especially, the responsibility of the creator for his creation. The play has the original Shelley framework—a story within a story. The half-mad Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Jake Weber) is found on an ice floe by Walton (Jonno Roberts), a sea captain seeking the North Pole. Frankenstein says he is here stalking his Creature (Christopher Donahue) and tells his tale in a series of flashbacks. We meet, among others, Victor's father (Michael Cullen), his beloved cousin Elizabeth (Annie Parisse), and a servant girl, Justine (Christen Clifford), whose destiny is embroiled with both Frankenstein and the Creature. This particular Creature, incidentally, is a literate monster—for example, he's read "Paradise Lost," which puts him ahead of many in the audience. The story's final resolution returns us to the Artic ice.
Under Michael Greif's imaginative direction, the physical production greatly assists the playwright's desire to tell the original story. On Robert Brill's set of shining black with icy white plastic curtains, aided by Kenneth Posner's clever lighting, the plot glides along with speed and ingenuity. Lightning bolts are a basic device of this plot, and playwright Bell cannot resist a few postmodern bolts of his own to add a psychosexual spin to the proceedings. Although providing initial jolts, these eventually serve to undermine the production's period sense—which isn't that sturdy to begin with.