Feb. 23, 2020 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“Frankenstein,” The Wallis, Beverly Hills, Feb. 12 – Mar. 7, 2020
In brief: The text of Mary Shelley’s famed novel is just the starting point for this eccentric multi-media extravaganza. Employing mannered music and arresting special effects to reframe the message of science gone wrong for today’s audiences, “Frankenstein” is a noteworthy if somewhat arcane evening of expressionistic theatrics.
On a night when six of the Democratic presidential hopefuls traded verbal punches in Las Vegas, the experimental theater troupe Four Larks brought its own brand of spectacle, allegory, and collaborative dramatic invention to Beverly Hills.
Kila Packett (Victor Frankenstein), Max Baumgarten (Creature), Claire Woolner (Mary Shelley) (Photo: Kevin Parry)
The basic story is familiar and ageless. Who doesn’t know about Dr. Frankenstein and the loveless, disfigured creature that emerged from his failed experimentation?
Shelley’s novel had a few more wrinkles than that, and Mat Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, and Jesse Rasmussen's libretto incorporates most of them into a poetic, abstruse adaptation. These include the North Pole setting that bookends the tale, the orphan Elizabeth (Joanna Lynn-Jaobs) who comes to live with the young Victor Frankenstein (Kila Packett) and his family and with whom he falls in love, and the murders of Victor’s brother (Lukas Papenfusscline) and friend Henry Clerval (Craig Piaget)
It helps to know Shelley’s novel, as in Four Larks' musical tragedy these events and characters aren’t introduced intelligibly so much as referenced in a hazy narrative that relies more on mood and metaphor than coherent storytelling.
The discursive text is a collage of Shelley’s prose interwoven with lines of poetry from her husband Percy and contemporaries Coleridge and Milton.
Kila Packett (Victor Frankenstein), Joanna Lynn-Jacobs (Elizabeth Lavenza) (Photo: Kevin Parry)
Of course the plot is beside the point here. The ethical issues that arise when science tries to replicate human life are what the Four Larks dramatists are interested in. Theoretical in 1818 when Shelley’s novel was published, the consequences of such scientific tinkering take on immense and frightening proportions in our genomic era.
To translate their vision the play’s creators rely on impressive stagecraft – smoke, strobe lights, surrealistic projections and films – and on original music, played by the actors and mostly quasi-operatic in style. The vocals are rendered with varying degrees of musical skill. Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as Elizabeth is particularly outstanding.
There’s choreographed movement, too, credited to Peters-Lazaro. It’s rudimentary rather than thrilling, one of the evening’s few disappointments, though not a major one.
While not to every theatergoer’s taste, this avant-garde Frankenstein is an often thrilling yet sobering reflection of the impending technological and environmental calamities that cloud our uncertain future on this planet.
Four Larks has done its part to remind us powerfully of those dangers. The rest is up to us.
"Frankenstein," The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org