Frankenstein at Country Playhouse: It's (Sort of) Alive!

The setup:

Thunder cracks. Lightning flashes. Electricity arcs. The sound of a heartbeat reverberates eerily. Under its bloody sheet, the creature stirs and grabs the arm of nearby young Dr. Frankenstein. The audience screams. In the most thrilling scene in Country Playhouse's epic production, Frankenstein, the classic Mary Shelley gothic "romance" of life and death comes truly alive. There are other scenes and a few performances that approach this elemental theatricality, which catches the spirit of the doctor's hellish experiment in man-made creation, but the production overall is hampered by a woeful lack of stage imagination that equates scale with importance.

The execution:

Massive, built set pieces are terribly difficult to pull off -- and I mean pull off the stage, especially when the resources at Country Playhouse can't supply a turntable. Interminable minutes of great drama are wasted when we in the audience wait for Frankenstein's great hall to be broken apart and lugged into the wings, no matter what creepy Hammer Films horror music plays in the background to cover the stagehands' action. We get thrown out of the moment, and all the built-up momentum must start anew. The play's pacing goes in fits and starts, like the creature lurching through the countryside. There's no reason for Frankenstein's chateau to be so detailed and hard to move, especially when other scenes are impressionistically rendered and make their point without such DeMille treatment. The bedroom is simply a doorway, a bed and a nightstand. Even the Arctic is conjured by the barest minimum -- a black curtain, a bit of dry ice, sound effects of an icy wind, and Frankenstein in a wool cape. Simple and elegant. We supply the rest of the setting.

And then there's the problem with those wayward Grade B accents. Where in the hell are we supposed to be? Switzerland? Cockney London? Henry Higgins's Elocution School? Everyone seems to live in a different country, which means that no one sounds authentic. Pick a place and stick with it. Better yet, don't even try for a phony foreign sound.

Except for the laboratory scene, which is nicely atmospheric, the lighting is way too bright. If a storm is raging outside, the interior should not look like a GE commercial. Where's the eagle eye of director Philip Nichols? If no one cares about the play's internal logic, why should the audience? In a striking pictorial effect, though, whenever the creature kills -- and, believe me, there are more dead bodies than in an entire run of Hamlet -- the stage is bathed in blood red.

Fortunately, the bumpy adaptation by veteran daytime soap writer Victor Gialanella, though fairly faithful to Shelley's novel, is greatly smoothed by the ardent Victor Frankenstein of Louis Crespo and the frightening, psychotic creature of Michael Raabe. Their powerful confrontation scene, after the creature has escaped from the laboratory and faces his "creator," is thrillingly physical. As the grotesque creature demands answers, the hulking Raabe flings Crespo like a rag doll. It's a grand scene, full of passionate rage and denial. Throughout the play, Crespo deftly illuminates the intellectual distance between what Frankenstein has done and what he meant to do. Raabe is truly monumental as the creature, intense yet curiously sympathetic even when murderous. He's primal rage.

Jeffry Dorman, as Henry Clarval, Frankenstein's skeptical fellow scientist and enabler, gradually awakens to the horrible consequences of what his friend has wrought. He's the everyman of the story, and it's through him that we, too, become horrified. In the small but pivotal role of William, Victor's young brother and accidental victim of the creature, Clara Marsh is deeply affecting, as is Amesty Rioux as nanny Justine, falsely accused and hanged as William's murderer. They bring a sense of real lives onto the stage.

Unfortunately, the always watchable John Stevens is wasted in the role of blind DeLacy, the forest dweller whose innate kindness calms the beast. He doesn't have much to do except sit by the fire. His scene with those overacting body snatchers, who have stumbled in from some comic operetta, should be fairly chilling but is clumsily staged and over way too fast to make an impression.

The verdict:

It's (sort of) alive! It's (sort of) alive!

Mary Shelley's classic horror tale of man playing god runs through October 27 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets at the company website or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover