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A New Approach To Frankenstein For VCU

Images courtesy Theatre VCU

The story of Frankenstein may have been written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but its themes are as old as mankind. It is the story of creation itself. It is the story of the conquering of death. It is the story of immortality. Frankenstein: Dawn Of A Monster is the current production for Theatre VCU; a world premiere written and co-directed by David Emerson Toney who has just been appointed the first Artistic Director for the Department.

Toney is known as the director of last season’s well-received ‘Night Mother for Firehouse Theatre Company and he brings over 30 years of experience as an actor, writer, and director to the job. The vast majority of that has been with professional theatres, although he has been teaching at Theatre VCU for several years.

David Emerson ToneyToney has crafted a fascinating script that uses the novel Frankenstein for his starting point. He’s not satisfied to just do another retelling of the story; he found another way to frame the work. “Initially David Leong brought the idea to me. Then it became my job to find my way into the story. I decided to put most of my attention on Mary Shelley. She was nineteen years-old at the time. As I investigated I discovered that the novel of Frankenstein is based on Mary Shelley's actual life, which in itself is amazing. But the ante goes way up when you realize that The Monster in the story represents Mary herself.”

The juxtaposition of Mary’s life as a girl of privilege and a woman of scorn serves as the backdrop and alternates scenes from reality with scenes from fiction to create a sense of tension. As Mary Shelley’s life deteriorates, we see the ways in which she approaches her life with and without her famous husband. As the monster – the creation – gains physical strength and mental superiority, he can and will surpass his creator.

As someone who has worked with student actors both in the classroom and on productions, I can tell you that much like that little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, when student actors are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, well…

When Toney was asked about how he felt working with student actors, he replied that he “wanted to give the students something that professional actors strive for. Ownership of the project. Letting them know that their opinions are valued.”

For young actors that can be a daunting task and several took advantage of this freedom to deliver good performances. Rebecca Granger is Mary Shelley and she handles her with an inner strength and finds a surprising dignity as Mary comes out from the shadow of her famous parents and her infamous husband.

Playing the dual role of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Victor Frankenstein is Andrew Reid, a tough challenge for a more seasoned performer. He seems much more comfortable in the role of Frankenstein, but that may just be because he has more to do and much more range to play. He gets close to the mania and obsession of the prototypical mad scientist, but comes off more wooden in his portrayal of the flamboyant poet.

Brandon Sterret completes the triangle as the Monster made the most famous by Boris Karloff’s towering performance. His mannerisms after his “birth” are fluid and his ascent from there to physical and mental superiority are manifested both in this vocal energy and presence. By the middle of the second act, his has become the dominant performance. His commanding presence is a true standout.

Technically the play is sumptuous. Granville Burgess’ set is dominated by diaphanous curtains that can be used to suggest bedrooms, laboratories, trees, and anything else needed. They are used so often to set the scene that I almost expected them to take a bow at the end of the night. Weston Corey does a great job with the lights – keeping us in shadows to heighten tension as well as taking us into the frosty light of an artic day. Emily Atkins’ costumes are good ranging from simple shifts to Victorian finery.

The sound design from Curtis Miller is crisp and sets the moods very well.

Often in a college production the technical sides will dominate because designers have the extra layer of protection from having their teachers approve designs before they go further. Many problems can be anticipated and changed prior to the production opening, but actors often face their challenges with guidance and direction but may lack all the tools necessary to give the performance that the script calls for, but this is their training ground and a chance to showcase their talent.

Since The Monster has two creators – Dr. Frankenstein and Mary Shelley – it’s only appropriate that this production has two directors, David Emerson Toney and David Leong. While unusual, it has happened when two artists have different strengths. When asked how the collaboration went, Toney is quick to answer, “David Leong and I worked on a production of Jitney at Ford’s Theatre in DC several years ago. It’s actually been very easy to collaborate with him. One of the best things about it is we foster the necessity for listening for the best idea of the moment. We really don’t care where it comes from as long as it works.”

Together they have forged an elegant and sometimes brutal piece of theatre that while remaining true to the story, takes us into new areas and makes the production stand out that much more. Unfortunately, critics and audience members alike often don’t make the time to attend university theatre, but for those willing to make the effort the rewards are often worth it.

Frankenstein: Dawn Of A Monster is definitely worth it.