Frankenstein is so difficult to adapt for the stage because it’s such a novel. Push the pop cultural appropriation of Mary Shelley’s plot aside, and you’re left with fat epistolary sections and long-winded monologues, rich in detail and broad in scope. The Monster is, in essence, a literary figure and the Romantic novel is really the only place for his cultivated voice. Take the Monster out of the book and he no longer has room to pontificate and narrate his worldly experience and education. His intelligence becomes something of a contradiction, as the shorter form of a play needs to occupy most of itself with plot: the Monster’s genesis and his acts of brutality and vengeance against Frankenstein. This leaves little room for his opinions on Milton. In many ways, the same concerns of adaptation apply to Victor, whose detailed recount of his education is the foundation for the entire book, but it’s the Monster that really interests us.
Nick Dear’s dramatization of the text for the UK National Theatre production, broadcast to movie theaters worldwide as part of NT Live, was a real triumph of adaptation. Directed by Danny Boyle, the production starred British TV starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who each played Frankenstein and the Monster on alternate nights. This perfectly focused the play (and a focused reading of Shelley’s text is no small feat) on the duality of the two characters.
But, it’s not Dear’s adaption that’s running in town. Instead we have Neal Bell’s 2002 adaptation at BCAP, under the direction of Jim Petosa. Instead of focusing on an aspect of the text, Bell spends a lot of his play dramatizing Victor’s (Michael Kaye) early childhood, painting him as being from a somewhat modern and dysfunctional home and consequently, quite maniacal and disturbed. (In fact, Victor does his experiments in his parents’ basement.) Bell compresses Shelley’s themes, often literalizing, explicating, and even discussing them in dialogue; a young Victor comes straight out and asks his father if “he is a god.”
There are some soft touches of humor, but where Bell’s text really shines is with his focus on the body–only the very stuff of life–something Shelley didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) really do. The play is stocked with the visceral: menstruation, heartbeats, stenches, a boy’s gruesome experiments with the family cat, a maid’s (a star performance by Cloteal L. Horne) sexuality. Bell also does well at framing the narrative with an Arctic encounter between Victor and Captain Walton, telling the story in a series of flashbacks. One of the flashbacks even has a flashback.
All of Bell’s dramatic additions and backstory on Victor don’t leave much room for the Monster (which Bell has actually re-christened “Creature”). He becomes secondary, Victor’s personal demon rather than his doppelganger. And while John Zdrojeski gives an extremely compelling performance of the Monster’s creation and initial struggle with using his vocal cords and other muscles, he has difficulty reckoning the Monster’s supreme intelligence and erudition with his brutality.
Martin Gjoni’s set and Chris Brusberg’s lighting are the real triumphs of this production. What initially appear to be plain plexiglass cuboids suspended from the ceiling become cages containing Victor’s spare body parts and specimens when lit properly. Where Bell’s text might be soft in its literary characterization of the Monster, it’s (especially in the scenic elements of BCAP’s production) strong in its imagery of the body and the physicality of Victor’s experiments. For me, at least this, is a welcome addition to the story of Frankenstein.