Frankenstein by Jon Spelman – Round House Theatre, Silver Spring
Monster by Neal Bell – Rorschach Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie M. Jackson
Frankenstein. Monster. The name conjures up Boris Karloff, protruding neck nobs, and those monstrous boots. It’s time to fill your mind with other possible images. Two excellent productions featuring aspects of the Frankenstein story currently showing at the Round House Theater in Silver Spring and Rorschach Theatre offer complementary interpretations of the gothic tale, one is a more interior journey into the Creature’s psyche, the other is a rip roaring ride on his plundering trail.
Spellbinding Jon Spelman brings the spirit and humanity of the famed character to life in his fascinating rendition of Frankenstein. Accompanied by primer musician Jesse Terrill, Spelman relates the tale with such tenderness, compassion and honesty that it is downright transporting. This production displays storytelling at its finest where, in the hands of a master, even doll props become magically real. It’s a lost art — that such talent is right here in the metro area, in a story he adapted is a special treat.
Touted as being truer to Mary Shelley’s concept in the original script, the production focuses on the character’s quest for meaning, friendship and love. Though identified as “the Creature” from the onset, the character starts out with the sweet innocence of a child, and Spelman skillfully portrays his humanity with touching tenderness. His warm, melodic voice captures the cadences, early speech patterns and old eloquent phrases of Shelley’s writing.
Early days of the monster are particularly poignant as he tearfully discovers his own visual repulsiveness by others’ terrified reactions to him. In Spelman’s portrayal, his beautiful rendition of the poetic language, accompanied by whimsical violin passages, defines the creature’s basic goodness and his painful period of self-discovery. Following Mary Shelley’s concepts (after providing wonderful asides about her own life, friends and loves) Spelman reflects the creature’s evolving character, his aching need for companionship, his valiant attempts to become worthy, and finally the monster he becomes after a lifetime of rejection. The piece is a mirror of what can happen to anyone if rejected enough and treated as a monster.
The direction by Nick Olcott shows a perfect evenhandedness in relating the creature’s moods, his growing sense of self, and spiraling discontent. The set, devised by Olcott and Spelman of dark foliage, dangling vines and large leaves in the background places you directly in the woods. The exquisite light design by Justin Thomas adds to the tale by offering subtle warmth during tender moments while showing the stark fiery rage of the monster at his menacing worst. This production at the Round House Theatre – Silver Spring stage is an excellent reflection of the company’s reach into the local artistry-with hopefully more success stories to come.
Rorschach’s Monster, on the other hand, is as far from warm and fuzzy as dark night is to smiley face day. Even before a character emerges on that stage, the sights and sounds of this terrific production hint of ominous events to come. The opening music sets the dark mood with the atonal chords of an organ, creaking sounds, a moan or two, and of course, the obligatory claps of thunder. The back of the set is draped in black and off-white gause-like fabric that works wonders with the impeccable lighting designed by Andrew F. Griffin. And then there is the treacherous looking stage, raking downward precariously with such uneven slats that I wondered just how the actors would be expected to even walk on it. I sure didn’t expect the nearly acrobatic tumbles, the running jumps, the plunging fist fights, murderous lunges, even carrying a body or two before nights end. But this is vintage Rorschach, where I should know by now to expect the frightfully unexpected.
More akin to the traditional story as also seen in Synetic’s version earlier this year, the story belongs to Dr. Frankenstein who describes how he has followed the creature to the ends of the earth – the frigid Arctic-to destroy him. While he is telling the tale to a doomed shipwrecked sea captain, the Doctor slowly becomes part of the scene he describes while the captain continues to look on, transfixed. In such moments, director Randy Baker bends time and place by merging the past into the present in the same scene-now we’re the ones transfixed. The entire production cackles with such moments of creativity, and Baker’s bloody fingerprints are on every scene. He keeps a laser-like focus on character-development, amazing use of space, even eerie lighting cues, all while commandeering a rollicking 90-minute show.
While an abbreviated evening is always appreciated, the self-imposed time-specifications rushed the pacing just a little to my taste. With so many cherishable moments, there was no time to dawdle over the Creature’s emerging sense of self-awareness, or wonder about the Doctor’s possible homoerotic inclinations, or fully appreciate the nuggets of unexpected humor that sparkled in the script and delivery. The body count kept racking up before our eyes as the creature did away with those close to Victor Frankenstein until the final showdown between the master and his reviled creation. It’s quite a match.
The entire cast delivers top-notch performances. Robert Rector as the creature, is a work of art. From the moment the Doctor carries him in over his shoulder wrapped in burlap like a sack of potatoes to the closing scene, Rector commands every scene that he is in. His exquisite physicality is evident whether he’s slithering beneath the set, darting out of range, or immersed on a killing rampage. And even with pasted on ears, dark cavernous mouth, and blood-streaked face, he’s simply stunning to behold. Lily Balsen as love interest Elizabeth is also extremely effective in her role. With beautiful dark-set eyes rendering camera-ready expressions, she offers an enchanting counterpoint to her lover’s gruesome experiments. Jeremy Goren as Victor Frankenstein may have been having an off night, lacking the interior intensity and drive to compel his actions and seemed to be going through the motions. Still, he has the makings of a fully committed lead, as evidenced in his perfectly rendered and breathtaking final scene.
Frankenstein. Now you have no excuse to have only one image stuck in your head, with these two masterful interpretations of the creature, his deliberations of humanity and fate. It’s time to give Boris some company clunking around up there in those boots, and I don’t mean Elsa Lanchester — that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Round House Theatre Silver Spring
through November 12
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $25 – $35
Rorschach Theatre performing at
The Sanctuary Theatre
Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church
1459 Columbia Road NW
Columbia Heights, Washington DC
OCTOBER 31 – NOVEMBER 26
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm