For years, the public has short-handed "Frankenstein" to mean not the morbidly ambitious scientist, but the monster he creates. Nick Dear's play capitalizes on that misconception by presenting Mary Shelley's sci-fi story largely from The Creature's point of view, and in doing so, unearths a tale that's rich in suspense and sympathy. And, thanks to Dallas Theater Center's sharp production, more than a few scares.
Ryan Rumery's excellent sound design sets the eerie tone early, with constant, pulsing chords that are interrupted by cracks of lightning — the loudest of which elicited a few shrieks from the audience on opening night. The underscoring continues throughout the two-and-a-half-hour production, keeping the dread constant and building delicious tension. Coupled with Tyler Micoleau's atmospheric lighting and David Bengali's beautifully effective projections, the experience inside the Kalita Humphreys Theater is nearly all-consuming.
These heightened sensations mirror what the newly "born" Creature (Kim Fischer) is assaulted with upon waking. Visceral jump-cuts of blood and guts overlay Fischer as he screams, grunts, and moans into being, twisting and contorting his newly formed body in a wordless ballet of pain and confusion. There's no dialogue in the play's first 10 minutes, and Fischer doesn't need it. Through his body language, we know exactly what he's feeling as he awakens, sees his terrified creator (Alex Organ), and escapes.
Avid theater fans might recognize this adaptation as the one produced and broadcast a few years ago by England's National Theatre, which famously rotated Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature and Dr. Frankenstein. Though they each have a towering, commanding presence, Organ and Fischer would not benefit from the same casting gimmick here; each is eminently suited for his own role.
Though Organ is MIA for much of the first act, when he does reappear, it's as a rudderless rich kid, endlessly postponing his wedding to the lovely Elizabeth (Jolly Abraham) and blissfully unaware that his science experiment still lives. When his creation does come calling, Organ distills Frankenstein's emotion down to compartmentalized, science-driven action. It's that reaction that drives home director Joel Ferrell's message that the true monster may not be the one we initially see.
Meanwhile, The Creature, having traveled far to avoid the jeering mobs that chase him out of town, stumbles across a kind older man named DeLacey, who is conveniently blind. Blake Hackler immediately grounds this portion of the play, delivering his best work in recent memory as he patiently explains philosophy, literature, and humanity to the broken Creature (he also reappears later as a gleefully immoral Scottish landlord). A spin-off buddy-comedy of just these two, debating and philosophizing, wouldn't be unwelcome.
DTC collaborated with the theater division of SMU's Meadows School of the Arts to include in Frankenstein not just graduate students, but undergrads, too. These actors-in-training are little more than animated set dressing, with the exception of Tia Laulusa and Richard Johnson as DeLacey's hardworking kin and Neil Redfield in a variety of roles. But at least the students function as a part of MFA student Amelia Bransky's flexible set, which has a fitting touch of claustrophobia in its sewer-like design. The kids don't get to do any of the heavy lifting, but that's mainly because the other actors have already handled the load.
Dallas Theater Center's production of Frankenstein runs through March 4 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.