Think Frankenstein and chances are you think movie. Universal Studios. 1931. Black-and-white. Boris Karloff. Bad haircut. Plugs sticking out of his neck. Throws a little girl into the well by accident. Scared of fire. Apparently dies at the hands of ignorant, torch-bearing villagers.
Those more inclined to literature may think novel. Cerebral. Philosophical. Gothic. Scary. Subtitled "Modern Prometheus." Creature reads Milton's Paradise Lost. Apparently dies by freezing in the Arctic.
What doesn't spring to mind is theater. Sure, it's a riveting tale, but there's no way you can stage mad scientists, horrifying creatures and boat journeys to frozen wastelands.
How, then, to explain the fact that not one but two new works about Dr. Frankenstein's famed creation are currently playing on Southern California stages?
It's got to be a chick thing. Women, after all, are the key forces behind Frankenstein. The novel, of course, was written in 1818 by 21-year-old Mary Shelley. Frankenstein, the new musical by Carol Weiss, opened Feb. 12 at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. The Frankenstein Project, an ambitious reworking of the Frankenstein legend helmed by Kirsten Brandt, is showing at San Diego's Sledgehammer Theater.
But that's it for similarities. Weiss' is a dramatic musical that adheres closely to traditional musical structure and Shelley's novel. Brandt's Frankenstein Project also uses Shelley's novel but is a far-more-experimental piece with a broad canvas that turns both Dr. Frankenstein and the creature into females and spins out three storylines taking place in two eras.
Both shows were sparked in large measure by one of the themes of Shelley's novel: her insight into unrestrained scientific and technological research. Genetic manipulation is the stuff of daily headlines these days, and it fascinates and scares the hell out of most of us-just as it did Shelley.
Tales of technology run amok have long been a staple of speculative fiction. But Shelley's novel, which was written at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the novel, was one of the first works of fiction to address the subject. In the process, she eloquently and frighteningly paved the way for the contemporary debate about how far scientists should go in tinkering with the essence of life. Victor Frankenstein, her brilliant young scientist, is possessed of a "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature." He scours the graveyards, hangs out at the charnel houses, and watches worms crawl through the eyes and brains of decomposing bodies. Combining the latest scientific knowledge with ancient alchemy, he animates lifeless flesh. But instead of the noble being he sought, he finds himself the sculptor of a horrifyingly ugly monster. He flees from his wretched handiwork, but the creature haunts him from Switzerland to England.
Unlike the dimwitted brute of the film, this creature is sensitive and intelligent, plagued by unimaginable loneliness. His frustration at being truly alone consumes him, turning "the fallen angel" into a "malignant devil."
The fact that Victor Frankenstein created life outside the natural order is something that has long intrigued Brandt. But she admits to being just as fascinated by the nuts and bolts of the tale. The idea to mount a stage adaptation came up when she and Sledgehammer executive director Ethan Feerst were tossing around ideas of literary works to adapt. "It just seemed natural for us to tackle this story since it's quite apropos with what is happening in the world today-with biotech engineering and cloning and all the medical advances," says Brandt, a fiercely talented 26-year-old who was recently named the Sledgehammer's resident director.
There are other salient issues in the novel and her play: man playing God, existential loneliness and child abandonment. But Brandt figures unrestrained technology is the theme that speaks most clearly to contemporary audiences. "My personal feelings fluctuate between 'Wow, that's really cool' and 'Hold on-should we really be doing this?' A lot of it creeps me out, like genetic coding. It can be terrifying. But then you see a 6-year-old boy with a blood transfusion through some genetic-altering drug who will now live and play soccer next season, and you realize that science is doing some amazing things.
"But if scientists don't keep themselves in check . . ."
One of The Frankenstein Project's three storylines follows the life of Shelley in the 19th century; a second follows modern Mary Frankenstein, a graduate student interning with a biotech firm; another is the story of Mary's creation, also called "Mary." The three stories ultimately converge.
Brandt says the show, billed as a "performance workshop," will evolve throughout its run, including the insertion of any new developments in cutting-edge medical technology. "I've got my spies watching CNN and all the medical channels," Brandt says. It's a living theatrical laboratory, with actors, technical personnel and director free to experiment from night to night.
It may not be the most consistent show, but it'll certainly be among the smartest. Brandt interviewed philosophers, theologians and scientists, including specialists in physics, plastic surgery and chaos theory. She hung out with a drag queen one afternoon in downtown San Diego in order to experience how people react to individuals who don't fit. And she read everything from Karen Armstrong's A History of Godand Elaine Pagels' The Origin of Satan to the writings of Pope John Paul II and Jean Paul Sartre.
Similarly, Weiss is no stranger to science. Before being seduced by the theater, she was a physics major for two and a half years at the University of Chicago (attending classes in the very room in which elements of the Manhattan Project were first put into place). An inveterate sci-fi reader, Weiss cut her chops on the giants of the genre, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.
"What I've always found most interesting about Frankenstein is that this thing Mary Shelley created is now almost a reality," she says.
Weiss' musical Frankenstein closely follows Shelley's vision, except Victor Frankenstein isn't a mad scientist. He's studying to be a doctor in large measure because of his deep yearning to bring his mother back to life.
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It's hard to buy into the notion of Frankenstein as a musical. The thought of the creature singing a song to a blind person ("Love Doesn't Need Eyes to See") or wondering about his sad state of affairs in "How Came I to My Misery" is, on the surface, ripe for parody. Then again, musicals about singing cats and deformed opera singers have proved monster hits, so who the hell knows what's going to work onstage?
If nothing else, this Frankenstein has its ideas in the right place. "The politics and morality of technology is something we deal with every day. . . . And Frankenstein, in its 19th-century way, certainly tries to deal with the morality of technology," Weiss says. "We constantly accuse scientists these days of playing God. And right now we're on this edge of asking: 'Where does science stop? What are the limits? If science gets the power to control every aspect of our physical lives, should it be legislated? If so, who controls it?'"
Which might make a nice number for the production: Victor Frankenstein sings "Why Won't Wall Street Boost My IPO (When I Know I've Got the Keys to Life)?"
The Frankenstein Project at the Sledgehammer Theater, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through March 7. $10-$15; students, $7.50-$12.50;Frankenstein at the Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 938-4128. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 7. $29-$32.