Going goth: ‘Frankenstein’ at The Wallis

Reviews · Theater

Similar to the Gothic novel of the same title, which tells the horror story of the creation of a terrifying artificial man from parts of corpses, the stage play Frankenstein at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills takes fragments from the novel and author’s life to piece together a singular theatrical experience.

This Frankenstein is unquestionably serious experimental theater. It was created by Mat Sweeney (creation, staging), Sebastian Peters-Lazaro (design, choreography) and Jesse Rasmussen (libretto), who comprise the Four Larks and whose past efforts have included original, site specific productions at the Getty Villa and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

With the Four Larks you can expect the unexpected, and their disparate dramatic production at The Wallis’s intimate Lovelace Studio Theater is certainly is that.  The production’s serious subtext, according to the play’s notes, is to attempt in an “amalgamation of dynamic physical theater, live music and experiential design” to bring to life a “modern take that spotlights the dangers of unregulated technology.”

It is assisted by an enthusiastic, talented cast of twelve, most doubling as musicians, all limber and a few impressively acrobatic, bounding on an open stage, against a backdrop of flashing video screens.

But try as it may, by employing an imaginative array of dramaturgical stratagems including live music, dazzling designs, inspired choreography, inventive lighting and effects, this world-premiere production is cluttered and confused.

Frankenstein (Max Baumgarten) does not shock, amaze or definitely not amuse; rather, as riveting as his characterization is on a ghostly stage he bewilders. Trying to follow the action is a challenge, despite the familiar story of an experiment that goes tragically awry, brilliantly imagined 200 years ago in the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley and retold numerous times on stage and screen, as comedy as well as drama.

A problem is that much of the narrative is said to be taken from the novel itself, and the writings of the author’s friends and family, including the poetry of Shelley’s husband, Percy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The language is dated and the excerpts wordy, and frankly pretentious. And so, unfortunately, is the play.  The production may have merit for those interested in experimental theater.

Frankenstein | The Wallis | thru March 1

Sam Hall Kaplan is a cultural critic who in a maverick past has written for the NY Times, LA Times and Reuters. Books include The Dream Deferred and L.A. Lost and Found. His love of theater dates to his off-Broadway youth and being a gofer to the legendary Brooks Atkinson.

photo credit: Kevin Parry

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