As a lone silhouette of a woman majestically ascends above the mist and darkness below, accompanied only by the sounds of eerily breathtaking music, it was clear a packed Avon Theatre and indeed the world was witnessing a new era of a two-centuries-old Gothic tale.
Within seconds of the opening sequence, it was clear Morris Panych – developer/director of the mesmerizing Frankenstein Revived – had reached goal number one – to horrify and amaze an audience with his stunningly unique take on Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein.
Continuously in motion, his image-focused work relies on the integral corroboration with composer/multi-instrumentalist and one of the world's foremost musical saw players, David Coulter.
Also key to the overall look and feel of the production are movement choreographer Wendy Gorling, dance choreographer Stephen Cota, set designer Ken MacDonald, costumer designer Dana Osborne, lighting designer Kimberly Purtell and sound designer Jake Rodriguez.
The remarkable visual result, bereft of the spoken word but reliant upon exhausting physical performances from a brilliant acting company, is an exuberant look at Shelly’s idealism, knowledge driven pursuits, and self-discovery within confines of a male-dominated society.
Panych goes much further than simply offering a perfunctory nod recognizing the author, tossing out long overdue credit for a classic piece of literary work many believe represents the actual birth of science-fiction.
Whether dreaming of her nightmarish role in creating Victor Frankenstein’s Creature or frantically penning her novel based on a nightmare she experienced nights ago, Mary (Laura Condlin) is front and centre with the scientist (Charlie Gallant) and his ungodly creation (Marcus Nance).
Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, she was the daughter of noted journalist/political philosopher William Goldwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication for the Rights of Woman and died days after her birth. She grew up in a household where scientists like William Nicholson and Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, were frequent guests.
Erasmus Darwin is the only scientist mentioned by name in Shelley’s introduction to her novel, noting, “he preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began with a voluntary motion.”
During her lifetime, scientists probed the links between electricity and magnetism while expeditions were launched to the North and South Poles, where explorers sought answers to the earth’s magnetic field.
Erasmus Darwin studied spontaneous generation – the supposed appearance of life from non-living matter and, like his grandson Charles, also contributed numerous written works about evolution.
So Panych’s inclusion of Mary Shelley in science-based scenes – beautifully created, enhanced and, excuse this liberty ‘brought to life’ by set designer Ken MacDonald, lighting designer Kimberly Purtell, sound designer Jack Rodgriguez – is not only fascinating but justified by her interest in and knowledge of the discipline.
While not originally cited as the author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818 due to its controversial nature, she was finally recognized in an 1821 French translation and two years later in an English copy.
It was assumed by most that her famous spouse Percy wrote the tale since he was credited for penning a preface for the novel. It wasn’t until years later that her influential father reprinted the book with her name on the cover.
British writer Brian W. Aldiss author of Trillion Year Spree, adamantly proclaimed Frankenstein as the first work of actual science fiction and Mary Shelley as the mother of the entire genre.
Gary K. Wolfe, a professor of humanities at Roosevelt University says she couldn’t possibly have foreseen what Frankenstein would spawn over the next two centuries. She wasn’t trying to predict the future but rather thinking about what was possible given the science of her era.
Until up now, there have been sparse numbers of cinematic and theatrical focus on Shelley as an important literary figure. In James Whale’s classic 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, the 18-year-old soon-to-be author, portrayed by Elsa Lanchester, was featured in the prologue, essentially as an easy but quite effective way to introduce the story.
The setting in the summer of 1816 was writer Lord Byron’s mansion where the host challenged his guests – Mary, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and physician John Polidori – to write the best ghost story.
Polidori wrote The Vamprye, published in 1819, and considered the first published vampire story and an influence on Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula. It was Shelley’s soon-to-be bride who walked off with top honours for her horrific tale based on a nightmare she had endured.
In the early production Whale decided the Bride and Mary Shelley would be portrayed by the same actress to show how the story and horror in general springs from humanity’s dark side. There is debate but many say he overlooked in stage versions in favour of Shelley's original text. Film historian Paul Jensen said the dual roles were essential to the director’s vision.
A new Bride of Frankenstein, to be directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and starring Christian Bale, is slated to begin production in 2024. Premiered at TIFF 2017, Haifaa Al Mansour’s biopic Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, received mixed reviews for the lacklustre portrayal of the author.
Clearly a theatrical visionary, Panych successfully staged Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at the 2008 Stratford Festival as an ensemble piece in both the creative and technical sense of the production. He was no stranger to his unique approach to theatre and stressed neither were to be seen as direct adaptations of the entire novels.
Now, 15 years later he’s back, this time in tune with Coulter’s oft-time sombre choral entries, other-worldly, strikingly discordant, and wonderfully off-kilter music. Along with the movement and dance choreographers, he draws powerfully etched and highly emotive performances from physically demanding roles.
While grotesque in appearance, Nance initially demonstrates compassion, curiosity, and an overwhelming desire for friendship and ultimately a mate. Yet, as the town folk recoil from him in horror, he quickly and out of necessity transforms into a social outcast on a vengeful spree of murder and mayhem.
Gallant’s Frankenstein, while frantically hurtling himself about his laboratory in his quest to usurp God’s gift of creating life, may indeed showcase some classic characteristics of the prototype mad scientist whose head and heart are not aligned properly.
Yet there is more to this easily confused, often side-tracked and multi-faceted man who does not initially sense his creation’s suffering. Grasping the creature’s need for a mate, he decides to build a companion but just as quickly has a change of thought, realizing he will be held responsible for populating the world with a race of demons.
Sean Arbuckle, tackling three roles, offers a particularly touching portrayal of the blind hermit who befriends Frankenstein’s lonely, lost creature, only to have his kindly gestures overturned by the angry mob of townspeople. Fans of the genre will be familiar with this famous scene from the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein.
As the moon’s visibility is eerily dictated by its changing phases from full to crescent, half and back again, Coulter’s potent music provides the haunting sound key to the plot direction and character reaction.
Condlin’s Mary Shelley is a constant, brilliantly with body movements alone showcasing the author’s varied roles as dream-weaver, author, and a woman years beyond the restricted times in which she lives yet successfully managing to excel by force of personal nature.
Known for its Gothic horrors, the original Frankenstein is also a much-praised literary work with its more than 300 pages cloaked in eloquent, thought-provoking language. So, one might assume Frankenstein Revived, with no words or dialogue, would be the exact opposite.
They are wrong.
Frankenstein Revived is what superb and meaningful theatre is all about. With wide appeal it is a genuine masterpiece – innovative, thrilling, beautifully staged, deeply moving with slices of anger and sorrow – a visual joy to behold. Not to be missed, it plays at the Avon Theatre until Oct. 28.