Shadow puppetry’s delicate intricacy is well-suited to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” because so much of the 1818 novel lives in shadow. Mountainous forests of skeletal pines, night skies shimmering with pelting rain, frozen wilds where a silver scrim of ice cloaks opaque depths — these are the worlds Shelley travels in her fable of consciousness, mortality and morality.
Those flickering, shadow places inform every moment and every frame of Manual Cinema’s take on “Frankenstein.” As its name implies, the Manual Cinema collective creates stories that live on film and in live-action on stage. As in silent movies of old, there’s no spoken dialogue in “Frankenstein,” only the occasional glimmer of words on screen. As in silent film, the absence of audible words doesn’t translate to silence. With a score that sonically stitches the story together, “Frankenstein” is an ingenious merger of live music and captivating visuals.
When: Through Dec. 2
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Court Theatre’s production is the third “Frankenstein” of the season (following Lifeline and Remy Bumppo’s productions, and preceding a Lookingglass “Frankenstein” slated for Spring 2019.) It is also the one that veers most significantly from Shelley’s original. In Drew Dir’s concept, the character of Mary Shelley is as significant as her fictional creations.
In bringing both Shelley and her novel to life, Manual Cinema uses more than 500 paper puppets along with a (human) ensemble of five actor/puppeteers and a live, four-person orchestra. Instead of a director, “Frankenstein” lists a crew of “devisors” – Dir, Sarah Fornace and Julia VanArsdale Miller. Their work is intensely striking.
Train your eyes on the images playing on screens positioned across the stage, or on the artists making those images, or on the musicians providing the eerie sonic backdrop: No matter where you look, you’ll find beauty and intrigue. And no matter where you look, you’ll feel like you’re watching one thing at the expense of another. That makes this “Frankenstein” a bit frustrating and a victim of its own cleverness.
Before we get to the Creature (VanArsdale Miller) and its creator Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Fornace), Manual Cinema zooms in on the Frankensteins family life, including VIctor’s parents, Caroline and Alphonse. But the line between fact and fiction is fluid and blurry. Throughout “Frankenstein,” that boundary is nebulous.
If you’re not familiar with the life of Mary Shelley and her family you’ll miss layers of meaning and several plot points in “Frankenstein.” Shelley and her half-sister Fanny (VanArsdale Miller) often seem interchangeable. Then again, being able to tell them apart doesn’t seem that important. “Frankenstein” engages with abundance.
Front and center are all those puppets, designed by Drew Dir and Lizi Breit and meticulously executed right down to Mary Shelley’s fluttering eyelashes and the Creature’s fiery pupils. In addition to paper, there are creations of cloth and wood and found objects. The Creature is a highlight. We see him in pieces at first — a hooded head, a disfigured finger, a knobby calf. When the face is finally unveiled, it doesn’t disappoint.
The immersive design elements are low-key spectacular. They’re as impressive as, for example, a falling chandelier or a rising helicopter – but without the gimmicky bombast. Sound designer/composers Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman use music like mist. It fills the stage with atmospherics you’d swear you could almost touch. Sometimes the live orchestra (Peter Ferry, Zachary Good, Deidre Huckabay and Lia Kohl) is a subtle undercurrent. Sometimes, it’s more like roaring waves, a force-field of sound sweeping up everything in its orbit.
Easily recognizable instruments fill the stage alongside contraptions that defy definition – whirligigs with spinning mirrors, percussion/string mashups, bizarre gadgets that thrum and hum. When all are going full-throttle, the sound creates a fantasia not entirely unlike “Star Wars” cantina scene.
With scenic/projection designer Rasean Devonte Johnson and costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg, the look on stage is steam-punk-meets-sci-fi, a dream world of a futuristic past. Claire Chrzan’s lighting design is also paramount: Minus her painterly blend of form and function, the all-important cinematic feel of “Frankenstein” would vanish.
With a show this tech-heavy, it’s inevitable that the actors are rarely the absolute center of the spotlight. Sharing the stage with paper and cloth isn’t easy, but the human cast members mange it seamlessly.
Centuries after Shelley wrote her novel, she still casts a long shadow. As the creator of the sci-fi genre and one of the first people on the planet to explore consciousness through pop culture, she’s looms over every episode of “Black Mirror,” and every new adventure by Neil Gaiman. Manual Cinema’s depiction of her life and most famous work is beautiful. Parts of her story are murky, but the telling is ingenious nonetheless.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.