City Paper is not for tourists
It doesn’t take much to scare me. If the AC flicks on midsleep, I’m up for an hour. I’ve never met a shower curtain I couldn’t check behind, and the first 10 minutes of Scream nearly gave me a cerebral hemorrhage. Still, I cannot be the only one whose marrow is thoroughly frosted by Christopher Lane’s Creature crushing the life from his prey in Monster, the Olney Theatre’s otherwise hit-and-miss adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Lane, looking like Billy Idol playing Klaus Kinski playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, almost makes you forget that dramatic upstage entrances went out with Bela Lugosi. But the real horror of the Creaturewho snaps spines with the grace of a black-beltis how stoically attractive he makes murder feel. In what will certainly be one of the performances of his life, Lane cuts so mesmerizing a figure that he makes everyone else onstage seem like a nuisance.
Monster strains not to be your father’s Frankenstein, boiling off the story’s Hollywood kitsch with the heat of barely repressed Victorian pansexuality. “Why did you give me a cock?” the Creature asks his creator, Victor Frankenstein (Jeffries Thaiss), just before confessing that killing makes him supremely hard. In the overripe atmosphere concocted by playwright Neal Bell, the line’s both a lament and a come-on. Bell also has a natural bent for farce: When Frankenstein family servant Justine (Valerie Leonard) wonders where Victor got the Creature, you almost hear the rim shot behind the bad doctor’s reply: “Here and there.”
Like Victor, Bell has overreaching ambition: to graft a Gothic sensibility onto a Shavian talkfest. But like too many scripts nowadays (Copenhagen, Proof, even The Invention of Love), Monster treats its ideasabout deus ex machina and eschatology and scientific ethics, all meant for contemporary resonancelike the puck in an air-hockey game. It’s all about velocity and volume: Monster batters you with loud, pompous posturing by its characters instead of seducing you with slowly unfolding connection. And to get through it all, director Jim Petosa sets a presto tempo, which turns the first 75 minutes into a waterfall of words, signifying almost nothing but their quantity.
Thaiss’ mad and very theatrical scientist doesn’t help: He screams and pleads and pell-mells across the stage as if he’d just cut his own head off. We’re supposed to see Victor grow up before us, from a dissector of pets to a young genius who makes his friends stand under thunderstorms holding kites to collect electricity. Thaiss, though, never moves past tortured Byronic adolescenthair mussed, shirt open, always throwing off his waistcoat to do more heavy thinking (or grave robbing). Trying to be supremely serious, he finds that no one takes him seriously.
His cousin Elizabeth (Anne Bowles) and his stentorian friend Clerval (Paul Morella) are both in love with him but reject his clumsy passesthey don’t understand him. And neither do we: Bell never takes us to the source of Victor’s pain and his obsession with building a man out of dead parts as a cure for inevitable death. Is it his family’s dysfunctionality? The inevitable dark consequence of an unfettered age of discovery? For a play full of position papers, Monster is short on answers. Midway through the exhausting first act, you wonder whether this could all have been avoided by running the child up to Hopkins for the latest meds and a little observation.
Then Lane’s Creature appearsinitially in the basement of the Frankenstein household, struggling against his shroud like a moth against its chrysalis. At first, you wonder if Lane’s making a huge miscalculation with all his howling and writhing. By the second act, though, the Creature has undergone a transfixing metamorphosis, deepening into a calm command. Dwarfing everyone else with threatening mass, he strides samurailike in his tattered, moldering, yet stylish greatcoat, courtesy of costume designer Pei Lee. Victor left the Creature to die in the wintry forest, but the Creature has only come back stronger, and he’s bent on blackmailing Victor into building him a mate. There’s an elemental, silent-film quality to Lane’s face here: Leaning into a stippled footlight that imitates light off a babbling brook, he looks full of hunger and calculation.
The halting growl of a voice that Lane gives the Creature also serves to slow down the production, allowing it to breathe and the audience to absorb the true awfulness of his situation. Grotesque and half-rotting, he’s condemned to roam the Earth, a permanent exile who now knows it, having taught himself to read. Amidst a bevy of great moments, Lane is literally breathtaking as he prepares to kill Victor’s brother, William (Will Gartshore). Upon learning William’s identity, the Creature delivers his lines”Your brother tortured me into life,” “He didn’t know how well he made me,” “Can your brother not know that you worship him?”with astonishing complexity: empathy for William curdled with revenge, pain, and resignation at having at last found his life’s purpose. Lane makes his character’s emotional logic, not his chokehold, seem the force that cracks William’s neck. Just as Victor put together the Creature from various cadavers, so the Creature sets about disassembling Victor’s life person by person; such is Lane’s achievement that each killing feels both shocking and yet somehow almost spiritual.
As remarkable as Lane’s performance is James Kronzer’s ingenious set design. It depicts the play’s Arctic frame (where the book also begins and ends) with a backdrop of blue-ice glaciers tilting like skyscrapers as seen from a banking plane’s window. The glaciers shift with each scene change, closing off some avenues and revealing others, interlocking in different combinations to echo the puzzle of artificial life that Victor struggles to piece together. It’s worth the schlep up to Olney just to see the scheme at work, especially as lit by Harold F. Burgess II’s moody, Promethean reds and oranges.
Bowles also shimmers as Elizabeth, a young woman eager for life and hence ripe to be shattered in a story such as this. Her performance is both delicate and sure-handed, her expressions quick with curiosity, self-assurance, desire, and fear. And Gartshore’s short-lived Cat has a nice turn, slithering sensuously over Victor as the two discuss the existence of God and Victor prepares to gut him with a scalpel. (Cat’s a believer: His God coughed up the Earth as a furball.) The scenesex, debate, and deathhas a white-hot electricity that the rest of Monster without Lane doesn’t deliver. Ultimately, Bell stands to his own play as Victor does to the Creature. This story about the narcissism of creation turns out to really be about the erasure of the creatorthe triumph of performance over ideas. CP