MNSU's Frankenstein Review

It’s the time of year for monsters, ghouls and mad scientists. Thus, Minnesota State, Mankato brings us the famous tale of “Frankenstein,” as told through an all-female cast. Does it present the definitive atmosphere of the favorite spooky holiday? … Kind of.

The Mary Shelley book is adapted by Fred Carmichael into his 1996 script “Frankenstein 1930” (I know, kind of stupid name scheme), and it’s made clear pretty early on that this is more set upon the basis of the movie than the book. If one is looking for differences, the monster never grows articulate, there is no arctic mission, there’s a weird love triangle thrown in for whatever reason - I suspect an unnecessary attempt to make the supporting characters more complex - but I digress. Even as an adaptation, the writing has some problems that the actors in this production cannot save.

The dialogue in this show is very… extensive. I know that exposition is needed, especially to establish the contexts of the character’s interpersonal lives, but there’s a lot of lines telling the audience something what we either currently are seeing or have already seen. When this happens, the words sound unneeded and, actually, corny. Showing and not telling will always be more dramatically effective, and there isn’t much point in ending every other scene by saying “What is Dr. Frankenstein doing?” and trying to create a mysterious atmosphere when the audience has literally just seen what Dr. Frankenstein has already done. We also do not need these lines delivered by these awkwardly placed comic-relief characters that really serve no purpose besides not being involved enough to die.

The actors thankfully give the best performance possible, although it doesn’t help the writing much that the delivery of just about every line from every actor is very loud and over-enunciated. I would write off a choice like this as poor direction were it not for the fact that the actors do not have microphones, and likely need to speak like this just to be heard by everyone. That being said, the actors use the space well, and are all very well-cast. Alyssa Johnson and Martha Juliana Cubillos are perfect choices for Victor Frankenstein and his assistant Gordo, respectively. Johnson presents as cold and calculating with a very nice deep voice, and Cubillos provides a delightful mania. The rest of the cast gave a nice array of personalities, tones, as well as accents (made up for by the very vague setting of “a European village”). Then there was the famous monster itself - a puppet manned by three actors.

Now most of the design aspects of this show, I must say, are very well done - easily the best element here. The elevated platform used to symbolize Frankenstein’s hilltop laboratory functions perfectly for the theater-in-the-round staging, and all of the decorations that aren’t committed to the time period exude a sense of the cold, brooding, mysterious, and dangerous work that the title character is doing. The lights are dim, there’s fog everywhere, and non-melodic music - and that’s only for the pre-show setting. Even the choice to have the characters all wearing corpse-like face makeup works better than I thought it would. The only shortcoming of any design feature in this play is, sadly, the monster itself. A puppet is an idea that I have never seen before, and I believe probably worked perfectly on paper. Despite using amazing voice modulation for the grunts and growls, the problems here lie in the mechanics. Although the function of the costume is fine - one person wears it, two others move the arms - there are parts missing that would otherwise have us believe the creature is really there. For example, there are no legs. Not even coloring on the puppeteers’ costumes to signify the presence of legs - something you’d think would be relatively easy. There is also a fair amount of movement restriction that limit the monster’s emotional reactions. The head moves, but the spine and shoulders do not. It cowers in fear and attacks with the same frame. I can’t help but feel that even making as little of a change as using gloves that actors could use to move the monster’s hands would be far more effective in convincing the audience that the monster is really present and dangerous.

My last critique of this show comes from the central idea of having an all-female cast. I, of course, love this idea. I really see no reason to even explain such a choice. The thing is that here, it was meant as part of a theme - according to director Heather Hamilton. Given the context of author Mary Shelley’s experience with miscarriages and her mother’s own death during Mary’s birth, the original novel of “Frankenstein” can easily be read as the story of a horrifying woman-less birth. The idea of the all-female casting here is meant to emphasize this idea, but it unfortunately - in my eyes - fails to fully show through. The show plays through as it is written, with the male characters remaining male, and the few period-appropriate sexist lines not played with or receiving much reaction. I wouldn’t complain if I wasn’t set up to expect something other than what I was given. Hell, the poster design for this production implies a female monster. I thought perhaps all of the characters would be female, or maybe this undead female creature would request a child the same way the novel’s original creature requested a mate and what fascinating dynamics could come from that… but no. A lot of the potential - the themes, the language and the fear - become limited by the constraints of the script.

In short:

The Good: the casting and overall technical design.

The Bad: the written script and some elements of limited emotional expression.

The Noteworthy: it’s an innovative take on a classic story, but probably a bit less than it wanted to be.

Whether one finds more appealing fright in this production, another classic horror movie, or clowns, I invite you all to enjoy this holiday season.