The more I think about Frankenstein the more it awes me. As I’ve said elsewhere in this issue, Mary Shelley’s 1818 epistolary novel addresses all kinds of modern anxieties. But that’s mostly because its themes have power without regard to time. The story of Victor Frankenstein’s all-too successful experiment in biochemistry speaks, tragically, to questions so big I feel awkward writing them down: What is life? What is death? What is the source of being? What is a soul? What is happiness? What do we owe our gods? What do they owe us? What does it mean to be human? To be divine? And what’s the difference between the two?
That being the case, it’s no wonder that the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein‘s publication would inspire what has to be an unprecedented response here in Chicago. Four—count ’em, four—stage productions based on the book will be going up at local theaters this season. One opens in October, another in November, the third in May, and the fourth is getting its world premiere at Lifeline Theatre right now, in a 90-minute mounting that’s often richly atmospheric but backs away from Shelley’s nervy probings to give us, of all things, a therapeutic ending.
Written by Robert Kauzlaric and directed by Paul S. Holmquist, the Lifeline rendition distinguishes itself right off the bat by turning Victor into Victoria. (Do your best to shake off the unfortunate associations with Blake Edwards’s 1982 film comedy, Victor/Victoria.) Certainly, nothing of the original character’s temperament is lost in the transformation. Young university student Frankenstein is as brilliant, willful, and intense as ever. And, in Ann Sonneville’s fierce embodiment, probably even more fucked up, going into a tailspin when her beloved, supportive father dies. Contemptuous of her family for accepting Dad’s death as natural and therefore inevitable, she resolves to take action against mortality itself and bring him beautifully back to life.
Victoria’s experiments toward that goal result, however, in the creation of a being so repulsive to her that she can’t acknowledge it as her own. The being she sees as a monster tries again and again to win her pity, and fails just as often. So it finally decides, Cain-like, that if its god won’t love it, it will annihilate everyone she does love. And so begins a rampage that throws Victoria and her creature into a strange, sordid sort of intimacy. If the creature is like Cain, then Frankenstein herself is like another Biblical figure, Jonah, running from a relationship that’s inherently inescapable.
Sonneville’s dark gravitas is such that you can almost forget to wonder why Victoria finds the creature, her creature, so hideous—especially inasmuch as it takes the form of a rather elegant outsize puppet designed by Cynthia Von Orthal, and, in one of the production’s most successful gestures, operated by a cadre that starts with Victoria’s father (Chris Hainsworth) and grows to include all the creature’s victims. But the subject is there nonetheless. Shelley engages it, formidably, in the book; at Lifeline, Victoria’s revulsion comes across as more inchoate, more visceral. In fact, Kauzlaric and Holmquist frame many of her actions as extra-rational. Even magical. The scene where she animates the creature is less a scientific procedure, for instance, than an artful sort of spell casting. Which sets up some queasy implications in light of the Victor/Victoria gender change. Are we supposed to see the female Frankenstein as more intuitive than her male counterpart? More emotional? Witchier? Could she be suffering from what a physician of Shelley’s time might’ve diagnosed as hysteria?
I don’t for a second believe that Kauzlaric and Holmquist are consciously dealing in sexist stereotypes. What I think is that those stereotypes are an unintended consequence of Kauzlaric’s most fundamental departure from his source material: As his program note states, he conceived his Frankenstein as an allegory on mourning and “how we find our way through it.” The play is an “emotional journey rather than a literal one.”
In other words, Victoria’s creature is meant to be seen as nothing more than a metaphorical construct—”a walking, talking personification of Grief”—and the havoc it causes is so much psychic rage against the dying of Dad’s light. And where Shelley’s Frankenstein is involved in a truly cosmic struggle with the living being he created at the peril of his eternal soul, and with whom he can never be reconciled, culminating in a death race across the most barren stretches of the earth, Victoria just needs to get her head on straight.
Never mind that this new scenario leads to a final scene that makes no sense even in allegorical terms. Never mind that it doesn’t merely rethink but rescinds Shelley’s narrative. It’s just so trivial. v