SALT LAKE CITY — October is a month often associated with falling leaves, cooler weather, pumpkin spice, and horror stories. From haunted houses to mind-bending corn mazes to slasher movies, Americans (and Utahns in particular) love to be scared. Westminster College is betting on this love of the macabre and offering the classic (some might say OG) science fiction/horror story: Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein. Even for those who are familiar with the gothic tale will encounter something new in this unique interpretation.
Westminster Theatre has created an immersive experience for this production. Audience members are literally welcomed aboard a ship, helmed by Captain Walton, which is bound for the North Pole. Walton is determined to be the first to reach this as-yet-unattainable goal, and apparently will sacrifice everything, including his crew, his provisions, and perhaps even his sanity to succeed. Into this tense atmosphere, an unexpected element is introduced: the crew spies a large man on a sledge in the far distance, traveling across the ice. Shortly after he disappears from view, they find another poor soul half-frozen to the ice and bring him aboard. Once he is somewhat revived, he recounts tale that boggles the imagination, a tale of pride, passion, scientific discovery, and (arguable) heresy. The half-frozen man is Victor Frankenstein, and he has a doozy of a ghost story to tell.
This version of Frankenstein adheres more closely to the novel, exploring the intersection between humanity and the humane, passion and compassion. It is much more of a social commentary on how people view and abuse those who are different and how fear drives anger, violence, sorrow.
The set and lighting design are the real stars of this production. David Knoell is listed in the program as immersive consultant and assistant technical director, and Spencer Brown is credited with set and lighting design. These two artists worked closely together to bring this passion project to life on the stage. The main portion of the stage is a beautiful recreation of a ship’s deck, with an area stage right to represent the Frankenstein home in Geneva, and another area stage left that stood in for the University at Ingolstadt, where Victor attends to slake his thirst for the sciences. There is also a fourth, smaller area designated as the home of a blind man called Delacey, who becomes important later in the tale. Shelley described her tale as a sort of “waking dream,” and this concept is reflected in the style of the show. Furniture and rooms that represent the past are shrouded in clouds of tulle, the hint of water is constantly present in the patterns that play on the floor, an enormous full moon lights the creature’s path on his journey for acceptance. The beautiful setting evokes all the right emotions as well as plunging the audience into the middle of the story.
Seating is limited to 30-ish patrons, who sit around the ship, on crates, barrels, railings, whatever lends itself as a perch. Audience members are also encouraged to move around the set as needed throughout the performance to see various scenes that might otherwise be blocked. The audience members were at once ghosts and voyeurs who were reacting to everything around them. Amanda Hayter directed her actors deftly through the complexities of an unconventional theatre style, helping move the action seamlessly from one locale to another, while still ensuring that the audience could hear everything regardless of where the actors were placed. The idea of placing everyone on the ship was intriguing and fun; the one drawback was that the railing is not terribly comfortable. But the performance is short at about one hour long, and I survived.
The costume design was beautiful and well-thought out. Briar Woodie made careful choices to aid the actors in their performances. The sailors’ uniforms showed that they were clearly not a ragtag bunch of crude mariners, but rather a well-funded expedition. They portrayed the cold and discomfort of their journey, and their growing unease and distrust in their surroundings, while allowing them to blend into the background of other scenes as needed. The costumes for the few actors who played women were less attractive, but allowed for quick and complete character changes, as several of the actors portrayed multiple people moments apart. By adding a coat, or a shawl, or removing a hat, these actors slipped smoothly in an out of a variety of people.
This theatrical version of the story is a star vehicle for the two main actors who play Victor Frankenstein (in this production, Jack Cobabe) and The Stranger (a.k.a. Frankenstein’s monster, played here by Ethan Singleton). Both men put their heart and soul into the story and created a fully alive performance. Both performances must exhaust the actors; Victor is often desperately frantic and harried, while The Stranger is almost always angry and yelling. This had the effect of making the performances sometimes seem repetitive and unvaried. But there were a few poignant moments when The Stranger used something other than intimidation and violence to try to get what he wanted. Likewise, there was a glimpse of a softer, happier Victor at home with his family before he is absorbed into his obsession, to the disquiet of family and friends. These moments in the play were refreshing and provided much of the depth in the main characters.
The adaptation comes directly from Shelley’s original work, with Knoell compiling the script from excerpts of the book. At the talkback after the show, Knoell confesses his love for the immersive theatre genre, and found a lucky home for it here in Utah, where so many people love haunted houses. Indeed, the talkback added to the enjoyment of the evening, and the opportunity to ask questions and share impressions of the show with the actors and production staff ware well worth the extra 15-20 minutes. Another bonus is the scheduled staged reading of a Hideous Progeny, which tells the story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein, on October 25. Based on what I have seen of the play, the reading should be interesting and informative.
Overall, Westminster College’s Frankenstein is a more than a show, it is a theatrical experience that worth seeing. I suggest that readers buy their tickets as soon as possible, because with an audience size limited to 30 people, this show will surely sell out quickly.