We all know the story of Frankenstein, right? Mad scientist toils away in a castle on a remote hilltop, stitching together a monster out of parts scavenged from corpses, which he brings to life on a rainy night by harnessing electricity from a bolt of lightning and then unleashes on an unsuspecting world with an triumphant cry of “It’s ALIVE! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
Sort of like this? —
Mary Shelley’s novel – which I happened to just re-read because it’s the 200th anniversary of its publication and I’m that kind of dork – is way more complex and interesting and subtle than the film bastardization that cemented that castle/lightning/evil scientist scenario into the popular imagination. Her original is a story of creative ambition gone too far, of existential despair, of the human tendency to label the unfamiliar and the Other “monstrous,” of the costs of social isolation and of the outcast’s desperate craving for society, and – perhaps most of all – it’s a story that raises prescient questions about the ethical responsibility of a creative person for the work he or she releases into the world, especially given the impossibility of predicting its effects on the future.
Tami Dixon’s adaptation of the novel into a 1940s-style radio play for Bricolage’s Midnight Radio series leans into that last aspect of Shelley’s novel; in a brilliant touch, Dixon weaves Shelley herself into the narrative, both at the beginning of the show – when Mary Shelley interrupts the iconic “castle/lightning/evil scientist mwahahah” tableau and pushes back, appalled, at the “monster” her own story has become in the hands of Hollywood producers – and then later, as her own narrative progresses and she realizes that the characters she has created seem to take on a life of their own, making decisions she wishes they would not make and reacting to crises in ways she finds herself powerless to prevent. The novelist’s helplessness in the face of the narrative drive of the story she has set in motion parallels and mirrors Victor Frankenstein’s powerlessness to rewind the tragedy he unspooled when he gave life to his “creation”: in both cases, the urge to create results in work that takes on an unpredictable life of its own. The parallel also allows Dixon to pay homage to the power of the creative impulse – for Shelley, as for Frankenstein, the compulsion to create overwhelms a rational consideration of the consequences of their creativity. Creative ambition, for both Dixon’s Shelley and Shelley’s Frankenstein, is a cursed blessing.
Aside from the addition of Shelley, Dixon’s adaptation hews tightly to the original story, in which – I know I don’t need to remind you – the brilliant young Victor Frankenstein, having created life from death, recoils from his creation and abandons it to wander lonely and friendless in a hostile world; eventually, the creature takes revenge on his creator for this abandonment by murdering most of his friends and family. The genius of Shelley’s novel lies in the way both antagonists lay claim to our sympathy: Frankenstein’s anguished ethical morass and the creature’s existential despair are equally relatable.
Under Jeffrey Carpenter’s insightful direction, Cotter Smith and Brett Goodnack rise to Shelley’s challenge as the creature and the scientist. Smith’s creature is a gentle soul reluctantly pulled to commit monstrous acts by repeated, crushing rejections of his attempts to find companionship; in Smith’s hands, the link between the disappointment of the creature’s all-too-human desires and his all-too-horrific actions becomes poignantly clear (and – it has to be said – gave pause in a week in which several humans expressed their rage over what they perceived to be thwarted desires in comparably monstrous ways). Goodnack is magnificent as Frankenstein, conveying his anxiety, despair, rage, and remorse with a commitment and abandonment that makes the play feel far more fully produced than the “radio play” format would suggest. (I felt the same way about Goodnack’s 2015 performance in 1984, where he likewise brought an astonishing range of emotional lability and intensity to his vocal performance).
Rounding out the cast of characters with superb vocal performances are Jamie Agnello, playing a bewildered and justifiably pissed-off Mary Shelley; Parag S. Gohel, as Frankenstein’s chum Clerval; and Maura Underwood, as Frankenstein’s fiancé Elizabeth. As in previous Midnight Radio productions, all of the actors produce sound effects using a variety of cleverly devised props and objects, incuding, in this instance, an appositely chosen “Operation” game board. Satirical ads – for things like “Electricity!” and “Surgery!” – punctuate the action, providing levity in the form of ironic commentary. Musical Director Deana Muro and Sound Engineer Brendan Kepple augment the foley sound effects produced by the actors with a soundscape that evokes an authentic radio studio. And Cello Fury is the musical guest, providing accompaniment and underscoring to the action as well as a rousing “intermission” number that showcases their unique marriage of classical instrumentation with pop-rock rhythms.