World Premiere of ‘Frankenstein’ at the Wallis — Man-Made Monster or Self-Made Deity

By Ernest Kearney — In choosing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mat Sweeney, Jesse Rasmussen and Choreographer Sebastian Peters-Lazaro of Four Larks have a wealth of themes and concepts to experiment with in their adaptation of Frankenstein at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

If you only know the Frankenstein story through the 1930s Universal films with Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal of the Creature, or the garish Hammer Studios movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s in which both Christopher Lee and David Prowse played the Monster in their pre-Star Wars days, it may surprise you to learn that the 1818 novel by the 18-year-old Shelley is an amazing read.

The novel is crafted as a series of letters, written by a ship’s captain to his sister. The captain and his crew are on a voyage of scientific exploration of the North Pole when they observe a towering eight foot-tall-figure crossing the barren arctic ice. Later they rescue a half frozen, nearly dead man and bring him aboard the ship.

This is Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant scientist whose grief at the death of his mother, lead him into a battle against death itself that results in his giving life to a creation of his own making.

Throughout the novel, Frankenstein refers to the creature by various epithets: “daemon,” “monster,” “fiend,” “abhorred devil,” “abortion,” “it.” But he never gives it a name. A detail that is often paid scant attention to, but which is central to understanding the novel.

It’s often argued that Shelley’s intention in writing the novel was as a condemnation of man’s obsessive pursuit of knowledge, and a stern rebuke that there are some answers man should not seek to learn.

This, I argue, derives from a failure to appreciate the novel’s subtitle: The Modern Prometheus.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan, one of the gods of Zeus’ Olympus, and a renegade who, known for his intelligence, often defies Zeus’ rule.

It is Prometheus who creates humankind from clay and who champions their cause, and eventually incurs the wrath of Zeus and all the gods by stealing the divine fire from Olympus and giving it to humanity from which they will build civilization.

Prometheus is mankind’s benefactor. He accepts their flaws, protects them and strives to bring about their improvement; for which he ultimately suffers.
Frankenstein, on the other hand is repulsed by his own creation. He rejects it, and refuses the grave responsibilities he has brought upon himself by giving life to the creature. He neither embraces it or names it.

Frankenstein is destroyed not by his pursuit of science, but by his inability to shoulder the knowledge he achieves. His doom comes about not as a result of his “playing god,” but as a result of his failure to assume the mantle of godliness.

Sweeney, Rasmussen and Peters-Lazaro open their show with grand gusto and fierce style that is both true to the original novel and holds the promise of a truly memorable evening in the theater.

The lights come up on Captain Walton (Lukas Papenfusscline), aboard his ship, who sings of the arctic whiteness accompanied by his tricorn wearing crew, part of the twelve actor/musicians who make up the Four Larks ensemble.

Both the high theatricality of image and Papenfusscline’s performance are commanding.

From there the narrative is taken up by Mary Shelley (Claire Woolner) who proceeds in a quasi-monologue that accounts for almost the rest of the work’s dialogue.

The show that follows focuses on Victor Frankenstein’s (Kila Packett) happy childhood rapidly moving to his university studies and his creation of the “Creature” (Max Baumgarten).

Beginning with the elaborate birthing of the Creature — strikingly realized by Baumgarten — the narrative shifts to Frankenstein’s monster.

We witness his confusion at this strange life into which he is thrust, the pain of his loneliness and the burden of his feeling of otherness.

We are shown how he learns language, to speak and to write, by secretively observing the De Lacey family (Yvette Cornelia Holzwarth, Katherine Washington, Papenfusscline) as their blind father (Philip Graulty) plays on his guitar.

We share in the Creature’s heartbreak as the family, frightened by his hideous appearance, reacts in horror when he tries to communicate with them.

We see how he searches out to Frankenstein and demands that he create a mate for him, warning him to do as he bids, “…for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”

We see Frankenstein’s refusal to do so and the price he pays for it.
We see the Creature kill his little brother and fiancée.
We are back in the Arctic with Captain Walton and his crew, the Captain now dressed in a different costume representing the passage into time well in advance of the opening; Papenfusscline wonderfully performs another song.

Blackout. End of show. Goodnight folks, get out of the theatre.

It is rare, very, very rare, when the greatest flaw of a show can be said to lie in its abruptness, but here is the case.

Clocking in at just over 60 minutes, Sweeney, Rasmussen and Peters-Lazaro’s production feels undersized, for both the right and wrong reasons. To their credit, the staging is so engaging that time is fleeting for the audience in its grip.

Frankenstein, as realized by this production, is a dazzling, inventive, techno-ornate dance performance.

There are superb moments within the staging such as a grand piano becoming Frankenstein’s operating table, the burial of Frankenstein’s younger brother, killed by the Creature, as the thunder is supplied by James Waterman on kettle drums, and perhaps the high-water moment of the staging when the Creature’s bride (Joanna Lynn-Jacobs) strapped on an operating table in a white shift becomes the screen for both the surgery of herself and the future as envisioned by Video Designer Gavin Gamboa.

All the while as Lynn-Jacobs transfixes the audience with an operatic rendering of Shelley’s
“I am alone and miserable. Only someone as ugly as I am could
love me.”

With those named above and performers Craig Piaget, Lu Coy and James Vitz-Wong, and the contributions of Brandon Baruch’s lighting design, Alex Hawthorn’s sound score and Lena Sands’ intricate costuming, Sweeney, Rasmussen and Peters-Lazaro have devised a visually stunning and remarkably original show.

And one that is distinctly unsatisfying.

Upon realizing the concluding of the opening was the conclusion of the show, my guest, myself and the audience, as a whole, gasped.

And I do not mean in the good way.

I cannot remember ever hearing such a chorus of “Was that it?” on leaving a theatre as I did this night.

Frankenstein is heralded as “an Exuberant Amalgamation of Dynamic Physical Theatre, Live Music and Experiential Design” and it is all that.

What Sweeney, Rasmussen and Peters-Lazaro have either overlooked or disregarded, is that Shelley’s novel is more than that.

Much more.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

The Wallis and Four Larks’ Production of
After Mary Shelley
Created, Staged, and Composed
Mat Sweeney
Design and Choreography
by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro
Played at the
Lovelace Studio Theater

at the Wallis
Feb 12 – Mar 07

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

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