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Arizona Repertory Theatre

Frankenstein: Monster production saves UA monster play

Director Gibbs brings A game to adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic

From the opening subsonic beats and environmental sounds of Arizona Repertory Theatre’s “Frankenstein,” to the superb lighting effects, this is a production to experience.

However, anyone coming to relive the classic 1931 movie version, starring Boris Karloff, which is perhaps better known than Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel, will be disappointed. The play, adapted by Victor Gianlanella, hews to Shelley’s text, in which the Monster is both fully articulate and in deep existential angst over big questions about life and death.

Shelley’s narrative, which introduces Victor Frankenstein (Matthew Bowdren) as an overly curious and underly cautious student, is necessarily truncated. Here, we first meet Victor fully formed, and at the brink of his most audacious experiment: to bring a dead body back to life. Starting this far along in the story unfortunately robs us of the character’s downward spiral so evident in print, and precludes audience sympathy for him and his tragic flaw.

Starting in a cemetery

After a brief prologue, there’s a tip o’ the hat to Shakespeare, as we start in a graveyard, where two workmen procure the latest corpse for Victor, then mischievously misdirect his old college buddy, Henri (Hunter V. Hnat). Henri has come to visit at the request of Victor’s fiancé, Elizabeth (Carli Naff), to get Victor’s head out of that crazy tower laboratory he’s built. Instead, Henri goes all co-dependent and assists Victor, just like old times back at school. With the assistance of some pretty convincing stage lightning, they achieve their goal and reanimate the corpse of an executed criminal.

Of course, you can’t play with those kinds of primal forces without all hell breaking loose and it does. The Monster (played wonderfully by Micah Bond), is soon free to roam the countryside, and, following Shelley’s storyline, becomes a questing philosopher.

He hangs out with a blind gypsy (Delacia, played by Heather Marie Cox), reads the Bible, and ponders the meaning of life, a subject literally close to his heart. But alas, inspired when the aforementioned grave robbers (Scott Murdock and Keenan Larson) assault Delacia, the Monster begins a murderous spree. After killing his comic relief, the bodies begin to pile up faster than a “Breaking Bad” binge, including Victor’s brother and his fiancé.

In the end, the blame and also the emotional anguish, circles back to Victor, payment for his hubris in thinking he could play God.

Excellent acting keeps it electric

Bowdren does a great job as Victor, despite the truncated character arc of this version. An artistic associate and education coordinator of the local Rogue Theatre troupe with his MFA in Performance, Bowden has a gift for unusual roles, such as the man turned cockroach in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” He won last year’s local Mac Award for best actor by playing a giant Japanese frog in Rogue’s “after the quake.” In addition to teaching as adjunct faculty at UA and Pima Community College, Bowdren is currently in a post-graduate fellowship in acting at UA. As always, his performance is committed and passionate, yet focused and fully aware.

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Likewise, Bond does an excellent job as the Monster, matching Bowdren in a physical and intellectual dance as Victor’s greatest achievement and worst nightmare. A senior in Musical Theatre, he gives a very articulate and kinetic performance, bounding about the stage, first in innocence, and later with menace.

Bond’s considerable physical stature is further emphasized by smart costuming choices from UA Costuming Design Professor Patrick Holt, especially a layered greatcoat inspired by steampunk styles. In Holt’s designs, the men’s attire and ladies’ dresses effectively evoke their circumscribed social roles in early 19th century Europe.

Ripping the script

Gialanella’s script seems padded with parts, though it gives us little to love about the other characters, as we see them only long enough to move the plot along, and never long enough to really get acquainted. Henri and Elizabeth mostly serve as foils for Victor. Police Commissioner Muller (David Hentz), cartoonish with his oversized muttonchop sideburns, and his ostentatious wife (Abigail Grace Harms), seem to have wandered in from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. Victor’s much younger brother, William (played alternately by elementary schoolers Zak Gruber and Bailey Axen), exists mostly to be a victim, like the landing party crewman in a Star Trek episode who we know will die early and violently. The function of Victor’s father, Alphonse (the sadly underutilized David Weynand) makes even less sense, as the character has few lines and contributes not a whit to the narrative.

Fortunately, a marvelous job by Gibbs and his technical crew reduces the burden on the script for the evening’s enjoyment.

The UA’s faculty expert on stage combat, Gibbs gives us a lively, sensuous production, full of sound and fury. Scenic designer Peter Beudert splits the flexible Tornabene Theatre space like a football stadium, placing the action in the middle between two audiences facing each other, emphasizing that we are watching a primal confrontation. One end of this stage is the multistory laboratory. The other end starts as a plain wall, but then opens up and pulls out into rooms of the Frankenstein chateau. The unadorned center area serves as forest, graveyard and gypsy camp, complete with a real fire (which the non-Karloff Monster here casually ignores).

Extra kudos

Special mention goes to Lighting Designer Eve Bandi and Sound Designer Daniel Colecchia. Bandi, a second-year graduate student with a degree in physics/astronomy, uses moody Gothic laboratory lighting to contrast with the bright, cheery drawing rooms. A combination of strobes, overheads and small pyrotechnics gives the storm/lab scenes a life of their own. Colecchia, a senior, uses deep bass beats and rolling thunder overhead to create a vivid sense of being engulfed in a violent electrical storm, not merely viewing it. Kudos also to second-year MFA student Angela McMahon as technical director, coordinating the complex real-time mechanics of each performance.

Gibbs’ production hews away from camp (aside from a stylized pronunciation of the family name that recalls Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,”) or laughs (though that is notoriously hard to tell with the older audiences on the second night of ART shows, which UA prefers to be reviewed, as the opening night performances are often skewed by theatre students cheering lustily for their friends).  The show’s vibrant bells and whistles fortunately overshadow the weaknesses of its text and create a showcase for the UA’s faculty and student talent, both on stage and behind the scenes.

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Ed Flores

Victor Frankenstein and his Monster (Matthew Bowdren and Micah Bond) in Arizona Repertory Theatre's 'Frankenstein'

If you go

  • What: “Frankenstein,” presented by the UA Arizona Repertory Theatre
  • When: Evenings: Oct. 30-Nov. 1, Nov. 7-8 at 7:30 p.m.; Matinees: Nov. 1-2, Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m.
  • Where: Tornabene Theatre on the UA campus located near the SE corner of Park Avenue and Speedway.
  • Tickets: Regular $28, Senior/UA Employee/Military $26, Student $19. For groups of 10 or more, deeper discounts apply. Information at UA Fine Arts Box Office, (520) 621-1162 or theatre.arizona.edu or tftv.arizona.edu.