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Playing With Fire: After Frankenstein/Dracula




Body Politic Theatre


Lifeline Theatre

That was some idea Lord Byron had back in 1816 when he challenged himself and a few of his friends to a literary contest. "We will each write a ghost story," Byron said, according to Mary Shelley--who with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their mutual friend John Polidori agreed to Byron's proposal. Out of that group project came Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, based in part on discussions she and the others had had concerning the animation of inanimate matter by electric stimulation. So did Polidori's novel The Vampyre, whose portrayal of an undead seducer stalking London set the pattern for numerous Byronic bloodsuckers to come--most famously the title character in Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula.

Frankenstein's monster and the Transylvanian count have been linked ever since. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the two Universal movies that established our conceptions of horror literature's two most famous characters. Tod Browning's Dracula, based on a hit stage play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston, came first, and its success prompted Universal to go ahead with James Whale's Frankenstein; the monster's role was originally offered to Bela Lugosi as a follow-up to his vampire, but he turned it down because it didn't have any dialogue.

That's only one of many respects in which the famous Boris Karloff film differs from its literary source. Whatever else Mary Shelley's monster is, he's talkative, a far cry from the inarticulate bolthead played unforgettably by Karloff (and spoofed just as unforgettably by Peter Boyle as a song-and-dance man with two left feet who bellows out a crude imitation of "Puttin' on the Ritz" in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein). The creature, as Shelley calls him, not only speaks, he quotes Paradise Lost; Milton's epic poem about man and God informs his own rage and confusion at having been cruelly rejected by his creator. Scientist Victor Frankenstein ran in horror at the imperfection of the being he had brought to life from pieces of corpses. "Remember that I am thy creature," the monster admonishes his maker. "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel . . . I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend."

The Dracula persona devised by playwrights Balderston and Deane and perpetuated by Lugosi was almost as far removed from Bram Stoker's novel as Karloff's character was from Shelley's. Instead of a courtly count with slick manners and slicked-back hair, Stoker's Dracula was a fearsome old man with a bushy mustache, bad breath, and hairy palms--an animalistic counterpart to his well-bred British nemeses. Stoker took his monster's name from the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, nicknamed "Dracula"--son of the devil--because he was an even crueler ruler than his father. Dracula is filled with pseudohistorical ramblings about "the whirlpool of European races" that surges through the bloodthirsty count's Transylvanian veins; at the novel's core is a clash between civilized Western rationality and primitive Eastern emotionality.

Two plays being mounted as Halloween offerings seek to reclaim Shelley's and Stoker's novels from their cinematic bastardizations. Barbara Field's Playing With Fire: After Frankenstein, written in 1989 for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, has been directed by Tom Mula at Body Politic; Lifeline Theatre is premiering a new Dracula adapted by James Sie and directed by Meryl Friedman. Both scripts focus on the philosophical concerns with life and death at the heart of the novels rather than on horror-show effects, and for viewers familiar with these stories only from the movies the result is likely to be quite startling. Some audiences will probably be disappointed; neither of these plays is strong in the suspense department, and both are far more talky than they are active. In this respect they mirror the tradition of the gothic horror story, a genre generally dependent on the evocative power of words to create a mood of dread.

Playing With Fire opens with two men confronting each other over an icy sea at the literal and metaphorical top of the world; behind them hangs a coolly shining globe of Promethean light, which later turns red-hot in scenes depicting the making of monsters. We know one of these men is Victor Frankenstein and the other is his creation, but at first we don't know which is which. Both are well-spoken, deep-voiced, and torn up by rage, despair, and exhaustion; neither looks especially grotesque, though neither looks normal, either. The ambiguity is deliberate and effective, for as the men's debate unfolds we realize that each is the other's doppelganger, codependent, and tormentor. The Creature--strongly played by Dev Kennedy, with pallid, strangely smooth face and long, flowing black hair--invites Frankenstein to kill him. Frankenstein--John Reeger, better than I've ever seen him in a powerful performance that suggests searing dry ice--affirms his murderous intention, but can never bring himself to act on it. Instead he quizzes the Creature about his life (for the purposes of scientific observation, we are assured). In flashback, the men recount Shelley's story--pared to its essentials, with most supporting characters removed and its key themes highlighted by ironic commentary. (When Frankenstein reminds the Creature of his unfulfilled vow--"Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous"--the Creature sneers: "I was bargaining at the time.") Their reminiscence is cinematically intercut with scenes featuring their younger selves (sensitively played by Robert A. Mullen and Christopher Garbrecht as maker and monster respectively) as well as Frankenstein's beloved stepsister/fiancee Elizabeth (Susan Fox, who explores the tension between the character's penny-dreadful heroine surface and her underlying frustration with her limited options) and Frankenstein's teacher, Professor Krempe (played by Donald Brearley with a nicely barbed humor to contrast with Frankenstein's obsessive seriousness).

The story that Frankenstein and the Creature tell between them remains incredibly powerful and resonant. Frankenstein, anguished by his mother's death, begins experimenting with electricity to create life, but is so appalled at his misshapen humanoid creation that he runs away. The Creature, a primeval innocent left to wander through the world, experiences both the best and worst of human society in encounters with a blind man and a child, then tracks down Frankenstein and demands that the scientist create a mate for him. When Frankenstein refuses, the Creature pledges to destroy all that the doctor holds dear, including his bride to be. Out of this story, many of whose elements are familiar in distorted form from the Universal Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, emerges a thought-provoking meditation on humanity's search for meaning and love from a God that seems to have deserted it, as well as on the responsibilities attendant to the human need to create.

Luckily, in Mula's fine-tuned staging, and especially in the remarkably moving performance of Garbrecht as the new-"born" Creature (subtly named Adam by the playwright), the play also works as an individual drama of a man driven to express his worst nature for all the wrong reasons.

Much of Playing With Fire's effectiveness lies in Field's decision to turn the novel's first-person narrative into dialogue between Frankenstein and the Creature. In adapting Dracula, James Sie takes a different approach, with mixed but often interesting results. Unlike the 1927 Balderston-Deane version, Sie's Dracula mostly preserves the novel's structure as a collage of diary entries and letters by the British men and women whose lives are invaded when the Transylvanian vampire decides to relocate (complete with 50 boxes of his native soil to sleep in) to suburban London in search of new blood. On the stage, this means a lot of monologues, many of which lead this viewer to wonder: with everything that was happening to them, how did these folks find the time to write it all down?

Many times, however, the monologue device is effective. Jenifer Tyler plumbs the frustrated subtext of heroine Mina Harker's thoughts on her interactions with men, whether she's battling off Dracula's lustful leeching or trying to gain respect from her chauvinistic would-be protectors. (Yslan Hicks's clever costume design includes hoops the women wear over their dresses to indicate sexual imprisonment.) Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire-battling scientist (played by Sam Munoz as a sort of cross between Peter Lorre and Inspector Clouseau), is introduced with a speech drawn not from Stoker but from medical texts of his time about unhealthy sexual vice that underscores the vampire legend's psychosexual hysteria. (Remember Dracula's hairy palms?) Dracula himself, played by William King not as an oily Lothario in an opera cape but as a vaguely Moorish black man (with a laugh that too often sounds like a hokey parody of Geoffrey Holder's old 7-Up commercials), regales us with anecdotes about good government, Transylvanian style--that is, the fine art of keeping the peasants scared shitless. (This material is interpolated by Sie from Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally's In Search of Dracula; it includes descriptions of Vlad Tepes's favorite mode of torture, impalement, that are the most graphic and horrifying thing in the show.)

Ultimately, though, the emphasis on telling rather than depicting the story distances the audience, an effect enhanced by director Friedman's stylized approach. Instead of blood, for instance, she adorns Dracula's victims with red scarves; and the final pursuit of Dracula to his Transylvanian lair is so abstractly choreographed that the audience at the show I attended wasn't even sure what ended up happening. If he reworks the script for future use, Sie should find a way to pull the audience more closely into the tale's horrific essence by drawing the characters more closely together. For now, his Dracula is witty, culturally instructive commentary on its source--but a little bloodless.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.

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