When I heard that the audience would be onstage during Hypocrites theater company’s new staging of Frankenstein at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered if we would be given pitchforks and torches. That didn’t happen. I suppose it would violate the fire code to allow a mob of theatergoers to chase after the monster.
However, the audience does chase around the actors, in a manner of speaking. This play, directed by Sean Graney, is being performed “in promenade,” which means that the audience is on the stage at the same time as the actors, who move in and around the spectators. Interesting concept, but difficult to pull off. I haven’t seen the earlier Hypocrites shows that were performed in promenade, though I have seen a couple of other plays using this device. With Frankenstein, the seating area of the MCA’s auditorium has been closed off with a curtain. Audience members sit or stand wherever they can, including benches scattered around the stage. When the actors need to move to a spot occupied by an audience member, they point in that direction as a signal to make way. The problem is that audience members frequently find themselves unable to see what’s going on. You have to keep moving around to get good vantage points, which didn’t bother me too much, but after a while, it got to be too much work just to get a clear view of the action.
More to the point: Does the fact that the audience is surrounding and mingling with the performers have anything to do with the theme of the play? There is one point when the Frankenstein monster is talking about mankind and he seems to be taking in the people surrounding him. At this moment, I got some sense of how the audience functioned as a sort of silent character in the drama. But it was just a passing moment. Perhaps the promenade concept would have worked better if the MCA stage had elevated areas for the actors or more than one overhead mirror to reflect the action.
The famous movie of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, were not all that faithful to the original novel by Mary Shelley. This stage version isn’t either, although it seems to draw more from the book (which features an articulate monster) than the films. The original film plays on a screen above the play, with the actors occasionally using a remote control to fast-forward the flow of black-and-white images. Graney’s take on Frankenstein vacillates between contemporary and historic settings, or so it seems. Most effectively, it feels like a bad dream. The story jumps ahead at a few points, skipping over months of events. The result is the alarming sensation that Victor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) has conducted his dangerous experiments in a sort of nightmarish haze, waking up one day to realize what he’s done. Whenever Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz) or “Strange Girl” (Jessie Fisher) show up, it feels like they’re dropping into Frankenstein’s lair from another dimension.
Matt Kahler delivers a strong, visceral performance as the monster, billed here as The Daemon. As in the book, the monster eloquently questions who he is and why Dr. Frankenstein has built him. The play’s final confrontation between monster and maker is moving and dramatic.
Frankenstein continues through Sunday (Nov. 1) at the MCA. www.mcachicago.org
Photo by Paul Metreyeon