Redmoon Theater

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

By Adam Langer

Monster stories are most effective not when they expose us to unknown and unexpected frights but when they reveal our own worst sides. The most monstrous creations of literature are invariably driven by self-loathing: the misshapen Richard III, the pathetic hunchback of Notre Dame, the disfigured phantom of the opera, the sadly misunderstood King Kong.

Traditional modern theater has had little luck in dramatizing horror stories. Perhaps decades of flying chandeliers and dancing candlesticks have left us jaded. Or perhaps American drama has been so obsessed with naturalism over the last few decades that anything fanciful, surreal, or bizarre seems phony. Whatever the reason, stage versions of classic psychological horror tales like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are invariably either camped up for laughs or played stiff and straight, as if they were mere historical relics of what scared folks a hundred years ago. Cinema has fared better, but not significantly: no matter how much Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh have tarted up Dracula and Frankenstein with smoke, blood, fire, brimstone, wind machines, and Robert DeNiro, their versions lack the chilling profundity of early silent-film adaptations like those by F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. I’d begun to think it was impossible for any dramatization of Frankenstein to create the same disturbing uneasiness I first felt reading Mary Shelley’s classic novel. Then I saw Redmoon Theater’s adaptation.

Cocreators Jim Lasko and Blair Thomas have triumphantly succeeded where countless others have failed. Their stunningly designed, consistently inventive Frankenstein, featuring exquisite puppetry and mask work, is more profoundly affecting than any other version of the story I’ve seen, because it emphasizes the human elements of the novel, telling events from the perspective of a monster whose growing knowledge of his own ugliness eventually leads him to despise the world and himself. The spine-tingling opening, in which a jarringly lifelike puppet watches with terrified resignation as his body is dismantled limb by limb, says more in five minutes about human beings’ alienation from themselves than most plays say in five hours.

Little in Redmoon’s production resembles modern drama in any traditional sense; many of the techniques seem borrowed from opera and early cinema. Bryn Magnus’s spare script cuts nimbly through Shelley’s text, charting the familiar progress of the legendary monster from conception to birth to youthful awe to adult anger and bitterness. There’s only a smidgen of dialogue throughout the 90-minute spectacle; information is related primarily through movement, pantomime, and subtitles. In fact this production falters only on a few isolated occasions, when offstage voices speak the puppets’ dialogue. The rather pedestrian line readings momentarily rob these fantastic figures of their magic and mystery; but given the astonishing production, this is a small criticism indeed.

Lasko and Thomas employ a splendid mixture of life-size, gigantic, and miniature puppets and live actors in masks. Alternating between these techniques allows Redmoon to create the illusion of quick cuts between close-ups and wide shots. During one fanciful sequence an enormous puppet of Dr. Frankenstein’s head looms horrifically over the stage like something out of Pirandello’s The Mountain Giants or Wagner’s Ring cycle, signifying the doctor’s growing obsessive madness. In another the doctor and his new wife are depicted at their wedding as miniatures, giving the audience a bird’s-eye perspective on the newlyweds’ ephemeral happiness.

Like masterful choreographers or orchestrators of fireworks displays, Frankenstein’s directors and designers keep upping the ante, following each eye-popping technique with yet another breathtaking feat. To demonstrate the beauty Frankenstein’s monster first sees in everyday human behavior, Redmoon has created an idyllic landscape of small country homes as pretty as gingerbread houses. The beauty of the atmosphere is heightened by Charise Mericle’s remarkably delicate shadow puppets of soaring birds and a romping stallion. The simple elegance of this scene is brilliantly offset by the production’s harrowing moments, as when Frankenstein’s plaintive monster, who seems to have stepped right out of a child’s nightmare, dwarfs the mountains. And despite daunting competition from the wonderfully crafted puppets, Redmoon’s live actors prove limber and expressive. The grotesquely humorous danse macabre they perform at the Frankensteins’ wedding reception is guaranteed to come back to haunt.

But most exciting about this production is the fact that the abundant special effects and delightful thingamajigs never take precedence over the story: they only further illuminate Shelley’s themes. The constant flip-flopping between live actors and puppets heightens the story’s ambiguity about what constitutes humanity and who is deserving of our pity. A moment of affection and passion between Mrs. Frankenstein and the monster before the play’s shocking conclusion is indescribably moving, revealing what can happen when we choose to embrace the darker side of ourselves.

Backed by a versatile string trio playing Michael Zerang’s jittery and doleful score, this is a relatively quiet, somber, even grim production only occasionally interrupted by moments of whimsy. Yet even the most disturbing moments in this Frankenstein are buoyed by our dumbstruck exhilaration at Redmoon’s puppet wizardry. It’s hard to imagine that another production this intelligent and creative will turn up this year.