A classic of the Romantic Era, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an Age of Reason hangover: Should we really do something just because science makes it possible? Shouldn't the pursuit of knowledge be tempered by humility? These compelling questions are given a more or less contemporary staging in the Maverick Theater's production of Frankenstein: The Prometheus Experiment.
In Brian Newell and Mike Martin's adaptation, Victor Frankenstein (Andy Brendle) is a Swiss scientist trapped in Occupied France during World War II. Hounded out of the university for his provocative theories, he's practicing medicine illicitly until Rudolph Esser (Paul Castellano), chief of research at Dachau, arrives on his table. After re-attaching the Nazi's severed arm in a grueling (if surprisingly bloodless) procedure, Frankenstein is pressed into service of a mad quest to create reanimated soldiers for Hitler's regime. Fortunately for those of us who aren't Nazis, his first experiment is a bit too successful: the wildly unbalanced Creature (Nathan Makaryk) gets loose just as Frankenstein's lab is destroyed, setting the stage for a symbiotic ritual of pursuit and revenge between an arrogant man of reason and a creature of instinct and emotion.
Unfortunately, the book's Gothic Romanticism and the calculated horrors of the Nazis make for an uneasy and confused mix in director Newell's technically ambitious, if ill-conceived, staging: pious condemnations of Frankenstein's student excesses ring hollow when voiced by a Nazi butcher, and the role of a gas-filled box in the Creature's creation makes for some unsettling associations. In perhaps the production's most egregious miscalculation, images of actual death-camp atrocities are used as video projections, making the doctor's supposedly abominable experiments seem pale and cartoonish by comparison. Ironically, in a show that relies so heavily on technology, it is Makaryk's grandly theatrical performance as the Creature that provides the greatest chills, proving once again that in theater, the most effective moments are the simplest: no video, no light tricks, no special effects—just a talented actor making maximum use of body and voice.
Frankenstein: The Prometheus Experiment at the Maverick Theater, the Block at Orange, 20 The City Blvd. W., Orange, (714) 634-1977. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Nov. 16. $10-$15.