20th February – 10th March
Burn Bright Theatre
Adapted by Isabel Dixon
Directed by Katherine Timms
Starring Danielle Winter and Elizabeth Schenk
Though thought-provoking, and grotesquely thrilling, Burn Bright’s Frankenstein is held back by its decision not to diverge more from the original novella. The first and most pressing way that this manifests is in its plotting. The decision to remain faithful to Shelley’s work is understandable (Frankenstein is a brilliant book after all), but it causes some problems in the pacing of the show. The story of the novella is structured in a series of arcs: the framing scenes on the arctic expedition, Frankenstein’s creation of the Monster and his flight from his home, the Monster’s description of its time living among the family in the cottage, etc. Each of these arcs serves as a self-contained episode of the story, with its own central conflict and emotional climax. Though this works well in the novella form, a problem arises when the same story is adapted to the stage — there are too many “big moments,” and not enough time spent on each one for any of them to have real weight. Why not elide some of these plot points, or cut them altogether? Why can’t we spend more time on the good stuff?
And there is a lot of good stuff to be had here. The core performances are stellar: Danielle Winter bestows this particular version of Doctor Frankenstein with a compelling mix of magnetic obsession and humanizing doubt, and Elizabeth Schenk’s Creature is truly fascinating. A loping, electric, gleeful presence, equally terrifying and beguiling. She charges the room with real horror whenever she appears, and sends a chill through the audience when we hear her bounding and cackling around us, in the shadows. Together, they achieve some wonderful moments of on-stage dread. The scene in which the Monster is first “born” was both nightmarish and exhilarating.
Supporting these performances is some legitimately thrilling direction from Katherine Timms and movement work from the rest of the cast. The scenes in the lab, in which the ensemble form the various mechanical and occult grotesques that Frankenstein uses to achieve her ghoulish ends, are particularly thrilling, macabre fun.
But most interesting of all are the ways that the piece chooses to diverge from the original. The most obvious of these is the decision to make both the Doctor and the Monster women. There are some thought-provoking ways they adapt the plot of the novella here: the Doctor in this version is Elizabeth Frankenstein, adopted daughter of the Frankenstein family. The Monster is also played by a female-presenting person, and though it was less explicit in the text of the piece (the Doctor tends to use the genderless “it” pronoun when referring to the creature) the implication seems to be that it is also female. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Frankenstein cannot attend university. In this story, she is an entirely self-made and self-taught woman, learning to create life itself through the power of her will and intelligence alone. She is also unable to leave her family home after the death of her father, implying her obsession with reanimation might be an expression of her suffocated freedom. If she cannot defy the laws of the era and attend university, she will defy the very laws of mortality. There is also a fascinating parallel drawn between Elizabeth’s desire for acceptance, as both a woman in a misogynistic society and as an adopted child in close-knit household, and the Monster’s desire for acceptance by humanity.
However, the structural flaws prevent the piece from really diving into these ideas. Whenever we start to explore the very interesting territory that these choices open up, the piece is forced to move on to the next plot point. As a result, the play feels unfocused. In hewing so close to the plot of the novel, it tries to cover too much ground, and misses out on a chance to explore the really fascinating questions that make it special. I would have loved to see this piece if it was a little tighter in scope, and a little more willing to twist and mould the original story to its own ends. There is the nugget of a truly inspired story in this piece, one that explores what happens to a brilliant mind when it is not allowed to freely express itself, one that riffs off of Mary Shelley’s original story and develops its themes into a unique artistic statement. However, because the play doesn’t allow itself the time to tell that story, it never really comes to fruition. We the audience just see glimpses of it, peeking through a faithful but unfocused adaptation of Shelley’s classic novella.