In an era of safe, harmless, thoroughly middle-of-the-road theater escapism, who wants to shock?
Clive Barker does, and he does so exquisitely.
The Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. has struck up a relationship with Barker, a horror writer and filmmaker whose most notable contributions to the genre are the Hellraiser and Candyman franchises.
But Barker started on the London stage, and to the stage he returned last year when Rude Guerrilla produced his History of the Devil. The same company is now tackling his Frankenstein In Love, a genuinely creepy, unabashedly sick play in production at the Empire Theatre.
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How creepy and sick? Two words: infant necrophilia.
There is more to Frankenstein In Love than merely horrific acts, though. Barker is a talented writer with a rich sense of language and no shortage of ambition. With this play, he attempts to marry Mary Shelley's 1818 gothic novel Frankensteinwith the genre of Grand Guignol theater, a French creation of the late 19th century that specialized in explicit horror, with hands cut off and eyes gouged out onstage. The pairing works on some level. This Dr. Frankenstein is no misguided man of science or half-crazed creator: he's a man so in love with life that he can't help reveling in death. In his laboratory deep beneath the palace of a South American dictator (more on that in a moment), the good doctor carries out his atrocities, creating grotesque creatures that eat flesh, rape dead bodies, shoot up heroin and read Plato.
And though Barker, a horror writer by trade, might seem perfectly content to shock for shock's sake, there's a method to the onstage madness that illuminates one of Shelley's themes: the danger of humans losing touch with nature and thus part of their humanity. Barker's Dr. Frankenstein is so enraptured of human nature that he's willing to destroy and mutilate a few humans in his quest to discover deathless life. In essence, Barker flips Shelley's theme on its head: Dr. Frankenstein hasn't lost touch with nature—he's madly obsessed with it. But he still loses all semblance of humanity.
That's the intellectually probing part of Barker's treatment. What's less effective is his decision to update the tale to modern times and layer the proceedings with a lot of intriguing ideas that never feel adequately explained. Most obvious is the fact that Dr. Frankenstein is now a Jew working in league with a third-rate South American dictator, and his monster is now a Che Guevara-like Marxist revolutionary who walks on fire and incites peasants to revolt. It feels like a swept-together collection of random contemporary references. It makes no sense, and Barker doesn't seem interested in answering some obvious questions: What purpose does it serve to make Dr. Frankenstein a Jew? What is this Auschwitz ring coveted by the evil Catholic cardinal who blesses the doctor's scalpels before he uses them to mutilate people? How does his monster, El Coco, inspire loyalty in the peasant masses?
Rather than politically charged, the underdeveloped ideas feel politically perfunctory. But if it sometimes stumbles on the thematic and intellectual level, Frankenstein In Love is otherwise an absolute gas.
This Rude Guerrilla production (co-directed by Alexander Rodriguez and Weekly contributor Dave Barton) doesn't always capture the full color and claustrophobic feel of Barker's script (whores aren't whorey enough and some monsters don't look monstrous enough), but there's enough theatrical grist in this bloody mill to keep things interesting—and the cast is more than up to the task. What the production sometimes lacks in special-effects wizardry it makes up for in its actors' approach.
Robert M. Tully's is a riveting El Coco—and he benefits from some stellar makeup. In Barker's hands, this monster is a patchwork of bodies. One hand belongs to a poker player who killed his family before offing himself. The other belongs to a blind writer; in his voice and his movements, Tully perfectly captures the yin and yang of both. This is a lost soul who eats flesh and has no problem murdering but is tortured by his own lack of humanity. He's a noble monster in every aspect.
There are also some fine actors in supporting roles—but someone should make a note to immediately axe any and all accents. As Frankenstein's dutiful assistant, Russ Marchand tends to camp things up a bit much but supplies some needed comic relief. Stephen Wagner kicks ass as one of Frankenstein's mutilations (Mattos) and as a necrophiliac doctor (Dr. Fook).
It's good, bloody, disgusting stuff—so bloody and disgusting that if there's any validity to the notion that the most offensive art is the most valuable because it forces us to make moral distinctions, then Barker, the horror fantabulist, is also a moral provocateur.
Frankenstein in Love at Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Also Thurs., Aug. 2 & 9, 8 p.m. Through Aug. 12. $12-$15.
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