Those who are familiar with the boundary-pushing multimedia style of the Ensemble for the Romantic Century will know, going into their latest show of the 2017-18 season, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that this is hardly a standard stage adaptation of Shelley's classic novel. Episodes of the book certainly figure into the show, with Robert Fairchild — also the choreographer of this production — playing the famously tortured Monster who is spurned by both his creator, Victor Frankenstein (Paul Wesley), and by just about everyone else he encounters. Interspersed between these acted-out scenes from the book, however, are biographical segments featuring Mary Shelley (Mia Vallet) herself during her own difficult life around the time she wrote Frankenstein, especially in dealing with the deaths of not only her own children, but also, later, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (also Welsey). Featured amidst this mix of fact and fiction are live performances of instrumental and vocal works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt, and a couple of songs by Franz Schubert.
That latter musical aspect is a signature of the playwright, Ensemble for the Romantic Century founder and executive artistic director Eve Wolf, whose productions could, on one level, be described as intimate classical concerts with staged elements. The eye- and ear-opening potential of such a multidisciplinary approach was on heartening display in the Ensemble's previous show this season, Van Gogh's Ear, in which Wolf's selection of classical works — pieces by a panoply of Vincent Van Gogh's French contemporaries, including Claude Debussy, César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, and Ernst Chausson — magically fused with the spectacle of seeing Van Gogh paint his canvases to at times suggest synesthesia in motion.
By comparison, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein comes off as disappointingly prosaic. Though Wolf's idea of juxtaposing details of Mary Shelley's life with scenes from her most famous literary achievement to suggest how one influenced the other has plenty of potential, director Donald T. Sanders is never quite able to make this concept transcend the academicism at its heart. At times, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein feels like little more than an annotated graduate-school thesis paper on the connections between life and art in Frankenstein. The performances don't always help bring this essentially literary conceit to life, either. Mia Vallet is never quite able to convincingly evoke Mary Shelley's tortured inner life, instead always keeping the writer's anguish at a rather girlish remove.
Thankfully, the play is dominated by Robert Fairchild, who, despite lacking the imposing physical stature one might expect from Frankenstein's monster, is able to vividly highlight, often purely through movement, the character's inner struggle to find a spark of humanity inside him. Much of the production is a showcase for the former New York City Ballet dancer and American in Paris star's lithe physicality, and Fairchild finds unexpected gracefulness in the Monster's awkward motions, the performer's lurching movements tinged with desperation to understand the world around him and to be understood. It's Fairchild's sense of visual expressiveness that infuses Wolf's one genuinely poetic scene — a moment in which fact and fiction merge and the Monster takes a sickly Mary Shelley in his arms and engages in a melancholy pas de deux — with touching pathos.
There's also much to admire on the technical side, especially David Bengali's colorful projections, which range from the breathtakingly ethereal (a vision of birds flocking through an orange-tinted landscape that the Monster regards with appropriate child-like wonder) to the menacingly Gothic (a nighttime black-and-white forest vista that faintly recalls an Albrecht Dürer canvas). They certainly do much to invigorate Vanessa James's abstract sets and generic period costumes. And then there's the music: an imaginatively curated set of Bach-written and Bach-inspired works that, more often than not, handsomely fit the various moods of given moments, especially as beautifully performed by pianist Steven Lin, oboist Kemp Jernigan, and organist and harpsichordist Parker Ramsay. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's reach may exceed its grasp, but enough of its disparate parts connect to make it a reasonably stimulating and occasionally insightful experience.
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