Off-Broad Street Theater is closing its 2005-’06 season with Tim Kelly’s adaptation of “Frankenstein,” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s incredibly popular 1818 novel. Many writers have seen a play lurking in Shelley’s novel — apparently the first adaptation was made less than five years after the novel was published, and there have since been at least 100, to say nothing of the adaptations done for film, most notably, of course, the 1931 version with Boris Karloff.
Apparently the common pattern for Frankenstein adaptations is to use the novel as a jumping-off point, not as a story to be faithfully reproduced. The version Robert and Julia Thick of Off Broad Street have chosen was first produced in New York City in the mid-1960s. It, too, may be more of a spinoff than what we ordinarily think of as an adaptation, but it has the important virtue of being closer to the language of the novel and to its moral issues than many that have appeared.
Victor Frankenstein, an aristocratic young man who is an aspiring scientist, has dropped out of the university and lives at the family estate on the shore of Lake Geneva, continuing his experiments at the chateau. Also living there are his mother; a young woman raised by his mother, who he has just married when the curtain goes up, and a housekeeper. Henry Clerval, who lives next door, is also a scientist. A police inspector is frequently on the scene: Frankenstein’s young brother was murdered before the curtain goes up. Also in the cast, of course, is the Creature, known to many of us as the monster.
Frankenstein has been working on “the power to bestow life on dead matter,” which requires “considerable dedication and a strong stomach.” He has created the monster by fitting together old body parts (stolen from the morgue or dug up from graves) and using electrical circuits to make them responsive to stimuli. It is interesting that in popular culture the name that evokes the monster seems often to be Frankenstein, and many people do not realize that Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the name of the monster. Yet there are those who would say that Frankenstein, because of his moral outlook and what he has accomplished, is as much a monster as the creature he creates.
In opposition to this view, Clerval remarks on the possibilities of limb replacement offered by Frankenstein’s methods (for some this modern interjection doesn’t fit in seamlessly). Frankenstein himself is certainly tormented by what he has created, but the Creature, apparently thought of by Frankenstein as pure evil, is frequently the character who points out the moral problem, even if he can’t control himself when he’s not listened to.
Although there is plenty in “Frankenstein” to brood about, this is an entertaining production. Bob Thick’s stage design and lighting are splendid, and the use of a plaintive Chopin mazurka to set the mood was a wonderful idea. Because the language of this adaptation is more evocative of the original, the actors are presented with something of a challenge, and their ability to deal with it varied. Nicholas Muni as Frankenstein plays the tormented scientist without becoming campy. Steve Lobis makes a believable friend, who as a scientist is intrigued by Frankenstein’s accomplishments but as a friend is disturbed by the moral consequences. Curtis Kaine is fine as Ernst Hessler, the police inspector, and Tom Stevenson does a wonderful job as the Creature, handling well the difficult challenge of playing a character who would be sympathetic but for the fact that he loses control when things don’t go his way.
The women seemed less comfortable than the men with the language, except for June Connerton as Sophie, the maid who, following an old tradition, is often sharper than the aristocrats she serves. Laura Agin plays Frau Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s mother, who claims to be supportive but wishes to be in control and is not really willing to give her son breathing room. Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth, is played by Casey Williams-Ficarra, and the gypsy girl, Justine, wrongly accused of a murder, is played some nights by Kristin Hill, other nights by Ansley Provenzano.
Whatever the weaknesses of the play, this is a production worth seeing. The moral issues are real and not easily resolved. And they are as vital and topical now as they were when Shelley presented them some 188 years ago.
Frankenstein, through Saturday, October 14, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Eerie adaptation of the classic tale. $25.50 to $27.25. Calling itself New Jersey’s original dessert theater, Off Broad Street opens for dessert at 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (curtain at 8 p.m.) and at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday (curtain at 2:30 p.m.). 609-466-2766.