Saturday, August 19, 2017

Review: Frankenstein

Alec Clayton
Published in The News Tribune, Aug. 18, 2017
Ben Stahl as the creature, photos courtesy New Muses Theatre Company
It is past time Tacomans come to know New Muses Theatre Company. Over the past few years this relatively unknown independent company has produced a slew of high-quality plays. Most but not all of their works are adapted by company founder Niclas Olson from great works of literature and performed in the upstairs performance space at Dukesbay Theater to –sadly –sparse crowds. Olson not only adapts the works himself, but he nearly always directs and performs in major roles. And their shows are invariably well produced with outstanding sets and lighting, and fine actors, all despite limited budgets.
New Muses’ latest production is “Frankenstein.” The well-constructed story and the dramatic presentation bears no resemblance to any of the many movie versions of the story nor to the comic film and stage musical by Mel Brooks. This version is based on and is true to the original novel written my Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Niclas Olson (left) as Victor Frankenstein and Ben Stahl as the creature
The bare bones story is that Victor Frankenstein (Olson) creates a living creature who looks horrifying but has a kind and loving heart. He resorts to anger, hate and eventually murder only after being beaten and cast out by humans who fear him because of his appearance and his inability to communicate. In this version, the creature (Ben Stahl) can’t speak at first but gradually learns to talk and becomes quite eloquent.
The story is epistolary, told in the beginning through a series of letters and eventually told by the creature himself. It begins with Captain Walton (Nick Clawson) writing to his sister, Margaret (Jenna McRill). Captain Walton tells of being trapped in the arctic ice and of rescuing a man (Frankenstein) floating on the frozen sea, and of the mysterious story Frankenstein tells him. Finally, the creature confronts his creator and tells of his loneliness, of the pain of rejection, and of eventually turning to murder.
Rather than a tale of horror such as it has been made into by many adaptations, it is a sad tale of longing and misunderstanding.
It is not an easy play to watch. It is dark, morbid and intensely dramatic. And it is a tour de force of acting by the four-person cast, including two cast members who switch constantly between 18 different characters, convincingly so without resorting to costume or makeup or any kind of special effects. The audience is able to keep up with who is who simply because of context, what they say and how they say it. In addition to Captain Walton, Clawson plays Frankenstein’s father, a blind man and a judge, a priest, a shepherd and a villager, among others; and McRill plays Frankenstein’s cousin Elizabeth, his mother, a woman falsely accused of murder and others.
The set designed by Olson adds immensely to the drama, and creates a rough and foreboding sense of time and place. There are ragged and sheer curtains that allow for shocking set changes, the creation of the monster and even a hanging without having to resort to expensive special effects.
Warning: there are loud sound effects, strobe lights and simulated gunfire.
The play is 90 minutes long and is presented without an intermission. Seats are not cushioned; I noticed that some audience members brought their own cushions, which is a good idea. There were plenty of available seats the night I attended, but the space in its current configuration seats only 20, so purchasing tickets online is recommended.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 20
WHERE: Dukesbay Theater in the Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave. #10, Tacoma
TICKETS: $10-$15

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