‘Frankenstein’ from a Different Perspective Resonates in Powerful Black Box Theatre Production

Universal Pictures put its stamp on the Frankenstein legend with its 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as a creature created by scientist Victor Frankenstein out of body parts gathered from various corpses.

In the film, the creature is depicted as a mindless, evil monster. However, the book that inspired the movie offers a much different view of the creature. In the book, he is not a monster at all. At least he doesn’t start off as one. Nor is he preordained to be one.

The creature is very intelligent – teaching himself to read and write. He then pursues his maker, first to convince him to create an undead female companion for him, then later to seek revenge for the various ways he feels the scientist has wronged him.

By reducing the creature to a senseless monster, Universal Pictures and most subsequent filmmakers, create a clear distinction between good and evil. However, the literary story is far more complex. In fact, what many regard as the first true science fiction tale was actually written by author Mary Shelly as part of the grieving process over the loss of her infant child.

Shelly started work on the novel version of Frankenstein in 1816, and it was first published in 1818. Female authors were not readily embraced at the time of publication, so the book was released anonymously.

Indicative of a society that is susceptible to conspiracy theories and has a history of chauvinistic beliefs, there are those who have theorized that Frankenstein was actually written by Mary Shelly’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelly – a romantic poet of modest fame. However, there is no clear evidence to suggest this.  

In the book, the creature that Victor Frankenstein creates is nearly eight feet tall – not too far from what has been presented on the silver screen. However, he is far from a mindless ball of rage. He is smart enough to teach himself what most require parents and schooling to learn. And although he does end up a killer, he is pushed there by the continued betrayals against him.

It isn’t just a monster book. Far from it. Mary Shelly’s original Frankenstein is an intense literary journey with the emotional weight and depth of character to launch a whole type of fiction writing.

A new stage version of Frankenstein by Danielle Mohlman now being presented at the Black Box Theatre at McHenry County College, takes a remarkably fresh take on the story. Under the expert direction of MCC theatre and journalism head Jay Geller, the play focuses on the book’s author Mary Shelly herself.

Shelly first started writing Frankenstein as a short story at the age of 18. She had just lost her infant child and was in deep depression. On holiday with a group of established writers and scholars, including Percy Shelly, the idea of a contest was presented. Each of the parties was to come up with an original ghost story.

Out of that weekend, Mary Shelly came away with the beginnings of what would become Frankenstein. Also developed that weekend were the origin ideas for John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which would be published in 1819.

Mohlman exquisitely imagines the moments of brilliance and the echoes of trauma that might have danced in Shelly’s mind as she composed the story of a man who dares to think he has power over life itself but no responsibility in the aftermath of his actions. It holds up a mirror to a world that is prejudiced against those who present differently, where women are expected to endure the sorrows of great emotional loss in silence, and inside we fear that the monsters we see ourselves as internally will somehow become visible to the outside world.

The play was first performed in 2020 and had its first professional staging at the Strand Theater in 2022. On the surface, it is a brilliant concept – put onstage the demons that dwelled in Mary Shelly that drove her to create one of the greatest dark genre pieces in literature. In the execution of that concept, Mohlman creates a piece of drama that is entertaining, moving, and thought-provoking. There is both beauty and pain in the world Mohlman creates, and in the hands of a talented director and cast it has the potential to be magnificent.

Geller is just the kind of director to not only do Mohlman’s words justice, but to add to the overall value of the entertainment package with the unique touches he brings to every production. And he has assembled a strong cast of students and members of the community to give body to his vision. The result is a presentation of the Frankenstein lore that is new, unique, and absolutely enthralling.

Trinity Anderson is the student actress tasked with playing both Mary Shelly and the physical manifestation of Victor Frankenstein’s creature when the characters she is writing come to life. It’s a daunting role that requires Anderson to explore a wide range of emotions, which she does with great dexterity. She truly does a fantastic job with a difficult role. She has a lot to be proud of.

In fact, the whole cast has a lot to be proud of. In this version of the tale, Mary Shelly’s mother plays a key role. Her mother died when Mary was just 11 days old. Mohlman’s play brings the spirit of her dead mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, to Mary Shelly’s side to help her find and assemble the pieces of story that will be sewn together into the literary tapestry of the book.

Wollstonecraft is played by veteran actress Sheri Warren. She is a strong actress who knows how to balance the temperature of the stage. When dealing with science fiction and otherworldly characters, it is easy to make them over the top which can steal focus from the dramatic importance of the action. Warren manages to capture a wonderful balance in realism and fantasy in her portrayal – giving Anderson an ideal scene partner to play off of.

Victor Frankenstein is played by Nathan Bodecker with great intensity and passion. He dives into his lines with a fever, showing the audience a fine display of penetrating emotions. His betrothed Elizabeth Lavenza is skillfully played by Addie Keller. She too is capable of incredible displays of heightened emotions.

Victor’s mother and father are played by E.J. Svendson and Jake Seelye. Seelye is a solid actor, known in the local community for being a joy to work with on stage and off. His commitment to his characters is always apparent, as it is in his biting delivery as Alphonse Frankenstein. Although this marks Svendson’s first time on stage in nine years, there are no signs of rust. They do a very nice job.

Also making a lasting impression is Izzy Griffin as Justine Moritz, the servant who plays an important in raising Victor and Elizabeth’s child William Frankenstein. Lucy Hagen does an excellent job as young William.

Ethan Sherman is well known to local audiences for his musical theatre skills, but in recent years has expanded his resume to include purely dramatic roles. His talents just keep increasing and it is apparent in his performance as Percy Bysshe Shelly that he is a bonafide leading man in any genre.

In his Black Box Theatre debut, Asa Pittner is impeccable as Monsieur Beaufort. I look forward to seeing more from this talented actor in the future. Wyatt Mizerk, Lucinda Nicholas, and Rachel Loeding also make strong appearances in supporting roles.

Angel Zuhlke, Willow Broussard, Bobby Roberts, and Taylor Runge make a haunting Greek chorus representative of the madness that may be brewing in Mary Shelly’s mind as she writes. When Percy tells his wife that she is responding to people nobody else can see or hear, it is truly heartbreaking because of how real that type of experience can seem. I commend the director and actors for capturing that moment with authenticity.

Adding to the believability of the evening are the costumes by Carol Foreman. Foreman does a fantastic job overall, and the way she clothes Anderson to be able to switch seamlessly between her dual roles as Mary Shelly and the creature is especially impressive. Props by Carol Foreman are also very effective.

The Black Box Theatre at McHenry County College routinely has great sets. Eric Luchen has been responsible for many of the fantastic playing spaces the theatre has featured in its recent productions. His concept for Geller’s in-the-round staging is simple, but visually stunning and very effective. Scenic artist Holly Adkins also deserves credit in that regard.

Spencer White does a stellar job with sound design, as does Deb Holmen-Madden with lights. Mike Madden executes that lighting design very skillfully. Mailin Contreras serves as stage manager and Nicole Molgado is assistant stage manager.

Joining Geller on the creative team responsible for such a superb production is assistant director and choreographer Maggie McCord. All of the choreographed movements, and the blocking in general, are exceptionally well imagined throughout the production – a testament to both Geller and McCord.

Frankenstein by Danielle Mohlman from the novel by Mary Shelly plays Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 5, 2023. All evening performances are at 7 PM and all Sunday performances are at 2 PM.

The Black Box Theatre at McHenry County College is located at 8900 US Hwy 14, Building E in Crystal Lake, IL. For reservations call (815) 455-8746 or email jgeller@mchenry.edu.

Photo credit: Christy Sturm

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area


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