Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was an overnight success when it appeared in 1818, and it's been in print continuously ever since. That's long enough for loads of wildly divergent interpretations to have sprung up. These days, it seems, Shelley's story can mean just about anything.
The tale of a doomed, hubristic scientist who defies the laws of nature by creating life from dead flesh is Shelley's attempt to claim a spot beside her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in the Romantic pantheon. Or it's a parody of Romanticism. Or it's her dissection of England's "resurrectionist culture." Or a feminist reading of Paradise Lost. Or an exercise in inductive reasoning. Or a parable demonstrating the workings of Adam Smith's invisible hand. Frankenstein's monster is both "our worst self" and "our most vulnerable self." He's also a proto-cyborg lesbian, hoping "to ascend into the phallic privilege," and a female-to-male transsexual—a "surgically constructed man, a construction that, in the eyes of society, renders him monstrous." Who knew the big oaf was actually a hot tranny mess?
All this hyperbrainy slobbering ignores one key fact about Frankenstein: it's awful. Every chapter of Shelley's florid prose springs more laughable implausibilities and strained coincidences. Brought to life unable to speak, read, or even comprehend the existence of words, the creature ends up talking like the King James Bible after listening to conversations at the window of a peasant cottage (where he's never spotted, despite being eight feet tall) and then reading a copy of Paradise Lost conveniently dropped in the woods near his hovel. Spurned by his creator (from whom he wants only love, or at least a revived lady corpse he can take to South America), he vows to ruin Dr. Frankenstein's life—and then manages to anticipate that several months later Frankenstein will fall asleep while sailing alone in a storm off the coast of Scotland and be swept to the precise remote Irish beach where the creature will dump the freshly murdered body of the doctor's best friend.
Still, Frankenstein's central crisis—a scientist creating life and unleashing havoc—is so resonant that people keep reworking, reimagining, and rewriting Shelley's clunky story, often jettisoning almost everything except the crisis. James Whale's iconic 1931 film adaptation—the one featuring Boris Karloff's grunting, bolt-through-the-neck creature—shares almost nothing with the novel, and neither do most of the 200 other Frankenstein-inspired movies. In fact, Whale's version has largely supplanted the novel as the popular standard: its narrative and imagery are the ones everyone recognizes, even if they've never seen the film.
In short, everything about Frankenstein has been up for grabs for quite some time. So it would seem a perfect vehicle for director Sean Graney and the Hypocrites, who have a habit of performing their own reanimation experiments on classics, ripping them apart and stuffing the holes with whatever strikes their highly intuitive fancies. Authorship has never been sacrosanct to the troupe; their shows privilege idiosyncratic responses to texts over faithful interpretations. A play about Frankenstein's monster as proto-cyborg lesbian seems right up their alley.
But with so many versions of Frankenstein out there, the Hypocrites have no natural starting point for their show. And they haven't decided on one, either. Rather than pick a particular iteration of the tale, to give themselves something concrete on which to work their disruptive magic, they meander through an indeterminate script that never declares which story it's telling or what meanings it wants to convey.
Graney's adaptation seems to have been cobbled together primarily from three sources: Shelley's novel, which the actors literally wield at a few key moments; Whale's film, which runs continuously without sound on a screen mounted above the action; and Richard Brinsley Peake's 1823 play Presumption; or the Fate of Frankenstein, from which hunks of dialogue are appropriated. But the show includes much that's invented out of whole cloth. Dr. Frankenstein performs a mini-mass before conducting his experiments, for instance, feeding himself the Host and anointing the corpse with holy water. Hated and harassed everywhere he goes, the creature is nearly identical to Shelley's original until he strikes a Faustian bargain with the doctor. Elizabeth, the doctor's childhood friend and would-be fiancee, is portrayed here as a neurotically possessive amateur apothecary, obsessed with preserving Frankenstein in instant photographs. And in the evening's wildest departure, a salacious Strange Girl turns up in a baby-doll dress, expecting to show the doctor a good time.
It seems as though Graney is trying to inflect lots of Big Ideas about religious ritual, patriarchy, social identity, and sexual dominance, a la Genet. But all those notions erupt in the first ten minutes or so, muddying the intellectual waters and splintering the action.
Little time is spent establishing the fundamental relationships among the characters, who are set adrift amid the detritus of Tom Burch's environmental design: bloodied dolls and ice cream parlor lamps hung from the ceiling, speckled benches and dressers littering the stage, old televisions playing nothing in particular. The Big Ideas never coalesce. And somewhere in the middle of the 80-minute show—about when the creature himself reanimates Strange Girl (having killed her earlier) and dresses her in a wedding gown of small dead animals so that she can wonder in song whether the soul has an atomic weight—it's easy to feel lost.
Graney's signature promenade style, where the audience wanders freely onstage with the performers, doesn't help. He mounted previous such productions on smallish, multilevel stages, but this time almost everything happens on the flat floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art's expansive stage. If you don't hustle to stay close to the action, you can lose sight of it for long stretches. And since it's hardly ever possible to stand back and view the full sweep of things, the scope of this potentially grand tale feels tiny.
As I was leaving the theater, I heard complaints that after multiple promenade productions Graney is "just repeating himself" (though no one says that about directors who keep audiences in their seats show after show). It's true that pieces like Psychosis 4:48, The Three Penny Opera, Miss Julie, Edward II, and Oedipus Rex all played by the same rules (explained in pretty much the same preshow speech) and communicated similar mixes of playfulness and menace. But in one key respect Graney's not repeating himself at all. In past promenade productions he began with established texts and assembled loosely associated images around them. The results were evocative. In Frankenstein he begins with loosely associated texts and atomizes them. The result is confusion..