by Lynn on August 29, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Marcus Nance as The Creature. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Live and in person at the Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Until Oct. 28, 2023.

Written by Morris Panych

Based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Music by David Coulter

Directed by Morris Panych

Music director, David Coulter

Movement choreographer, Wendy Gorling

Dance choreographer, Stephen Cota

Set designer, Ken MacDonald

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Jake Rodriguez

Cast: Eric Abel

Sean Arbuckle

Carla Bennett

Devon Michael Brown

Laura Condlln

Amanda de Freitas

Josh Doig

Charlie Gallant

Eddie Glen

McKinley Knuckle

Bethany Kovarik

Gracie Mack

Ayrin Mackie

Anthony MacPherson

Heather McGuigan

Garrett McKee

Spencer Nicholas McLeod

Kyra Musselman

Marcus Nance

Trevor Patt

Jason Sermonia

Mateo G. Torres

Brilliant, gripping, moving, full of wit, intelligence, art, magic and compassion in the end.

Background. Mary Shelley began to write “Frankenstein” in 1816 when she was 18 years old or so. (Let that sit with you for a bit to embrace that accomplishment.) That one novel created the whole genre of “horror” literature. It is a novel that has remained modern, current and provocative since then.   

The Story. Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant student and scientist who has visions of creating life through experimentation. He creates The Creature from body parts from a cemetery, electricity and ‘science.’ The Creature ‘energizes’, leaves the laboratory where he was created and begins roaming the county side encountering people who are reviled by how he looks. He meets a blind man who shows him compassion. Dr. Frankenstein disavows The Creature and it becomes a frantic game of cat and mouse with The Creature hunting Dr. Frankenstein and vice versa.

The Production. The magical creative team of Morris Panych (playwright/director), Wendy Gorling (movement choreographer) and Ken MacDonald (set designer) behind the wonderful movement-based production of The Overcoat, have joined together to create Frankenstein Revived. They are joined by David Coulter (music), Stephen Cota (Dance Choreography) and Dana Osborne (costumes). The result is breathtaking in every good way.

The first thing the audience sees on stage is a hospital gurney, parallel to the stage. It’s behind a scrim. We get a good look at it and it sets the stage for what is to follow. The scrim rises and the whole sweep of the production begins.

A large circle up stage is the center of Ken MacDonald’s impressive set. At times other circles move into the main circle to create an eclipse, a crescent moon or other images. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting is painterly, vivid and often startling. ‘Trees’ composed of twisted, entwining rods of red or black are moved on and off in stark relief to what is going on on stage. All the while David Coulter’s gorgeous music underscores and enhances the mood of every scene.

There is no dialogue. It’s all movement based and Wendy Gorling’s movement choreography and Stephen Cota’s dance choreography are stunning:  muscular, intense, tender, sensitive and just plain gripping. The movement provides a sense of urgency to all that is happening there. It speaks volumes about the seamless collaboration of Gorling and Cota that one can’t tell where the work of one begins and the work of the other ends. This choreography is such a shared position. After some digging, Steve Cota is behind the exciting dance moves of the Elements (scientific particles that cannot be broken down) and everyone, while Wendy Gorling perfects the intricacies and minutiae. The results are vibrant and precise. Dana Osborne’s costumes are beautifully tailored, form-fitting and elegant of the time.

Dr. Victor Frankenstein is played with vigor, energy and supreme confidence by Charlie Gallant. He moves with the grace of a dancer. Dr. Frankenstein is a brilliant student and as such Charlie Gallant jumps up in class, his hand in the air, always ready with the right answer. His brilliance in experimentation is realized as Dr. Frankenstein reaches up with one arm and seems to hurl elements into a bowl, then he reaches up with the other arm and again throws that element in the bowl. Then he takes off his scarf and quickly swirls it in air as if mixing the elements. It’s one of many vivid images of this production and illuminates the close creative relationship of Wendy Gorling as the movement choreographer and Morris Panych the director to realize a vivid image.  

Dr. Frankenstein raids cemeteries for body parts for his greatest experiment. Dancers sit with their backs to the audience representing both the tomb stones in the cemetery and the bodies that will be plundered.  Like God, Dr. Frankenstein will create this new life in his own image. But here it’s more profound. As Dr. Frankenstein, Charlie Gallant looks in the mirror, puffs out his chest, raises his chin in the reflection and flips his scarf with a flourish around his neck. This is narcissism and it’s chilling.

After Dr, Frankenstein applies electricity to the covered ‘body’ on that gurney—creating life from dead bodies, sciences and electricity—we are distracted (deliberately) by Frankenstein stage right, and don’t realize that the resultant Creature (Marcus Nance) has suddenly sat up, covered, on the gurney stage left. Morris Panych is a clever, smart, creative director. He knows when to surprise by distracting and when to rivet us by focusing our attention where it matters. When Frankenstein’s experiment initially proves a success, he eats an apple with gusto and arrogance. Shades of defying God in eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris is overwhelming.  

The Creature is played by Marcus Nance. He wears a body suit of rough stitches indicating where body parts were attached. Except for a pair of briefs he looks almost naked.  His face is a mass of scars and dark shadows. His walk is stiff and ungainly. There is a sense of forbidding size to him. But Marcus Nance gives The Creature a nobility, an inner humanity. As The Creature’s journey continues, he begins wearing clothes: first pants, a vest, a shirt, boots. When he ‘meets’ D’Lacy, a blind man living in the woods, he is not fearful of him because D’Lacy shows him kindness with a touch of his shoulder. The Creature accepts that touch with grace. It’s a stunning moment.  But as people are recoiled by The Creature, he reacts with fear and anger.

I wonder, is it significant that Marcus Nance is a Black man playing The Creature? The Creature is treated badly by most he meets, treated as ‘other’. One considers that Blacks have been treated badly through history, as ‘other.’ I thought about that. More significant is that both Marcus Nance as The Creature and Charlie Gallant as Dr. Frankenstein are exquisite looking men. Nance brings out the humanness of The Creature, the experience of loneliness and the embrace of kindness and love, while Charlie Gallant illuminates Dr. Frankenstein’s lack of character, when he abandons The Creature, refuses to create a female companion for him, exudes hubris and arrogance. Terrific performances, both.     

There are so many witty, almost impish images in this gripping, compelling production. I thought it wonderfully cheeky that Sean Arbuckle plays the kind and gentle D’Lacy who is blind and shows The Creature kindness, and later Arbuckle plays a Captain who uses a telescope to see even better.

Watching it all, overseeing (?) it is a woman (Laura Condlln) in a black dress. At the beginning of the production she rises up from inside the large circle at the back. She seems to grow taller as she stretches to her full height. The dress billows out and from under it black clad beings roll/scurry out and disburse. Who is that woman? What are those creatures. The woman is a constant presence, sometimes looking troubled, commanding, emotional, kind. Is she the devil controlling Frankenstein? At times she writes furiously with a long quill pen in a large book.  (Yes, of course!) The quill flaps quickly in the air as the words pour out of the black-clad woman, constantly writing as she is rolled out on a set piece and appears on stage just as mysteriously. Before The Creature’s end she stands next to him, gently holding his hand and he hers. She touches his chest with love and affection. They obviously love each other. It becomes clear who she is. As The Creature disappears into the Arctic ice, the woman gently closes the book in which she has been writing. She of course is Mary Shelley, the creator of this astonishing story, asking us to decide who is really the ‘beauty’ and who is the beast, who is the ‘human being’ and who is the ‘monster of hubris’. As Mary Shelley, Laura Condlln infuses her character with a compelling command of our attention. At times she is fiercely watchful, always thinking, always creating and imagining, always writing down her thoughts. The bodies that rolled out from under her skirts I liken to ideas or characters or parts of her stunning story.

Comment. Sometimes it’s maddening when the cast is listed in alphabetical order and not in order of appearance, in the programme, as it was here. Sometimes it’s good not to check the programme but let the production guide you. For this time, the mystery of that woman in black works, until it is obvious who she is.

The vision of this powerful story, the sweep of it, the power to stun, is beautifully realized by director/writer Morris Panych and his brilliant co-creators Wendy Gorling for her movement choreography, Stephen Cota for his dance choreography and David Coulter for his stirring, evocative music. The production is a gift.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 28, 2023.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mary kerr August 30, 2023 at 2:57 pm

It is so wonderful that you can make me see the production Lynn by your clear eyed vision and not just as so many tell the wikapedia story line.
Thank you.
It sounds like a stunning production. I wish I could see it.


2 Lynn August 30, 2023 at 7:30 pm

It is a wonderful, stunning production Mary. And one image I didn’t put in the review, at the end warily, The Creature and Dr. Frankenstein meet in the Arctic, having chased each other there, and they shake hands, and then slowly the hands separate and at the end the tip of the forefinger of each man touch! Talk about a Michaelangelo moment of ‘creation’. OY…. Hope you are well.