When Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was published in 1818, she probably never imagined that people would still be fascinated by it almost two centuries later. And yet the productions keep coming, from an upcoming Dean Koontz television take on the iconic figure to a Broadway musical version of Young Frankenstein. Almost all of these versions are influenced by the classic 1931 film, which emphasized the horrific aspects of the tale. Shelley, however, subtitled her novel The Modern Prometheus. Religious and philosophical concerns were an integral part of the story, but what our culture remembers seems generally to be a vision of Boris Karloff clunking around with bolts sticking out of his neck. Young theatre group Sight Unseen intends to redress this error with its production of Neal Bell's play Monster, which actor/producer Clark Freeman says is an adaptation more true to Shelley's original intent.
"It steps back from what people know about the story and goes back to the novel," he says. "The scare is still there in the story, but it's not the same structure as the novel; it tells the same [story] in a completely different way. It highlights what's most important: [the Creature's] sense of abandonment, and family. In the book and in the movies, [Victor Frankenstein] never has a relationship with his Creature. Whereas in this, immediately a relationship is struck. It's a father/son or God/man relationship. It very much is a moral tale, and asks: Is [Victor] a god? I think that's something that gets lost in all the translations and all the movie adaptations. Everyone's trying to make a horror movie. It's not this big, ugly Creature that's scary; it's the fact that this being doesn't necessarily have to be evil. It's how society views it—how it's accepted or not accepted—that changes [the Creature] from 100 percent love to 100 percent rage."
Freeman portrays the unfortunate Creature, which he sees as both a technical and acting challenge. The show is double-cast—with many of the actors playing cats and dogs, as well as their human roles—and he has to change from his canine persona early in the show to full-body makeup as the Creature, which takes some doing. But he says he enjoys the dramatic range of the character.
"That's the cool thing about [portraying the Creature] for me, how [the play] is structured, and how I broke it down as an actor," he says. "It's the complete cycle. I get to play an arc of life. I'm born onstage and go through a young adolescence. Then I'm abandoned, and everything from that point is about that abandonment. As the Creature grows into a man, he's going to find these answers: Why Victor or God has abandoned him. The things he has to do to get God to do the things he wants."
According to Freeman, the members of Sight Unseen found that the play fit their vision of the modern theatre they want to produce. "Going through the process of season-picking, we ran across this play," he recalls. "Professors of mine and Andy Mitton—who directed the play—went to Middlebury College, in Vermont. One of these professors had done [the show] in D.C. We'd heard about it, read the script, and fell in love with the adaptation that Neal Bell had done of Frankenstein. Ideas in the story that rang true and interesting to us were: the responsibility of the creator over his creation, the responsibility of knowledge and power, how Victor Frankenstein creates this monster, this incredible thing, and then through his own fear and hubris abandons it because he's afraid of it. It rang true for things like cloning, how important stem cell research is, but also how important it is to understand everything that you're doing. Being a young company, and believing in all this modern theatre that's out there, [theatre] that's gorgeous, that doesn't get the chance to be done a lot—it's exciting, it's on the edge, it's new. That's where we fit in. We tend toward that stuff."
Freeman says the show was cast the same way Sight Unseen casts all of its shows, which mixes the usual practice of membership companies with a desire to continually evolve.
"From show to show, as we grow, we grow as a family," he says. "The people we work with, that we love working with, connect with our mission, which is that of hard work and determination getting jobs and opportunities more than image or luck or whatever else in this town that does it. You'll see most of the [cast of our last production] One Flea Spare in Monster. But then we always, for every single production, go through a casting process. We bring in at least one or more people we have never worked with before. It constantly grows and becomes organic; it never gets stale."
"The script in itself is extremely challenging," he says. "The challenge is the actors doing the work they need to do, which they're doing an incredible job on. What everyone else perceives as challenges [then] just becomes fun. OK. We have to change me from a dog to a Creature in 20 minutes: go. Half of our soundscape, and how atmospheric the piece is going to be, [will come from] live sound onstage—anything from running water to twigs snapping to bones breaking. This is the biggest show we, as a company, have done yet."
"Monster" will be presented by the Sight Unseen Theatre Group at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 1-31. $15-20. (877) 986-7336.