In Lifeline Theatre’s intriguing staging of “Frankenstein,” the titular creature is no brethren to the bolt-necked, flat-headed Herman Munster types that have come to define the star of Mary Shelley’s genre-defining 1818 novel. In Robert Kauzlaric’s adaptation, Frankenstein looks skinned alive. Created by puppet designer Cynthia Von Orthal, he comes to life — or rather, a hideously mutated version of life — as a grotesque, sentient garment worn by dead people.
But for all his monstrousness, the creature’s words go straight to the pulsing need of every human being on the planet: “Hear me. See me. Help me.” The dichotomy embedded in the repeated refrain is profoundly troubling; it captures the essence of humanity, but it’s spoken by a creature who behaves with inhumane evil. That connective tissue between monster and human defines Kauzlaric’s adaptation. If you’re in the mood for macabre self-reflection (and who isn’t, as Halloween displays sprout like wild witch hazel?) “Frankenstein” is worth checking out.
Directed by Paul S. Holmquist, Kauzlaric’s adaptation flips genders (Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein is now Victoria; best friend Henry is Helena; fiancé Elizabeth is Erich). The shift brings additional complexity to the original tale. Shelley wrote of a father and son (Dr. Frankenstein and the creature). Lifeline’s story is of a bereaved daughter (Victoria) seeking to bring her father (Alphonse) back to life. When the grieving Victoria (Ann Sonneville) summons Alphonse (Chris Hainsworth) from the grave, she creates a being who is both her father and — since she created him — her son. Ponder the familial intricacies and you’ll soon be down a dark rabbit hole.
‘Frankenstein’ ★★★ When: Through Oct. 28 Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Tickets: $40; $30 military, seniors; $20 students Info: lifelinetheatre.com Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission
But Kauzlaric stumbles significantly with the ending, which is the antitheses of Shelley’s dire finale. At Lifeline, Victoria eventually arrives at a place of empowerment, light and love. It’s an ending that seems like it wandered in from another story entirely. (“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” comes to mind.) It’s incongruous and wholly inconsistent with everything that’s come before it.
Still, there is much to recommend “Frankenstein.” For one, there’s that monster. With Hainsworth manipulating Von Orthal’s creation, the birth of the creature doesn’t need cheesy lightning bolts to heighten the drama. As in the novel, Victoria’s unholy creation is burdened with unbearable loneliness, an unhappiness so intense it leads to savagery. Lifeline’s monster literally engulfs his victims, pulling them up from the grave and enfolding them into the flickering heart of his being. In the end, the puppet contains half a dozen victims, creating a visual that evokes the multi-armed powers of Shiva the Destroyer.
The production is pocked with moments that startle and alarm. Here’s Victoria’s lover Erich (Ty Carter) on surviving harrowing trials: “I won’t tell you we’re only given what we can manage,” Erich says. “We both know that’s a lie.”
Equally dark is the question that inevitably rises from Victoria’s actions: If monstrousness is the result of having to bear the unbearable, aren’t we all potentially monsters? In showing how Victoria deals with impossible sorrow, Kauzlaric makes it clear that monstrousness and humanity are inextricably linked. Monsters aren’t the other. They are us. It’s a chilling premise.
Holmquist’s cast does well by the demanding story. Sonneville’s Victoria ably captures a woman whose lethal emotions have metastasized and poisoned her entire being. Hainsworth brings both Alphonse and Von Orthal’s creation to life. Trent Davis is heartbreakingly vulnerable as Victoria’s doomed little brother, and Risha Tenae captures the bottomless grief of a mother dealt the worst possible blow.
Joe Schermoly’s set design is a decaying gothic delight, complete with a grave that opens like a yawping mouth. And take note of Jordan Kardasz’s macabre, otherworldly light design. Look up: Eels of Borealis-green and indigo slither from the fly space. It’s a wondrous effect within the shadowy world of the play.
Make sure to listen: The creature’s “see me, hear me, help me” refrain is intensified by composer Barry Bennett’s haunting sound design, which incorporates the panic of bird flocks in startled flight, thrumming electrical currents and an undertow of strings just discordant enough to make you uneasy.
It’s never pleasant to confront the monster within. But at Lifeline, it’s eerily entertaining.