Theater Review: FRANKENSTEIN (Four Larks & Wallis)

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by Marc Wheeler on February 22, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


In an effort to strip away the centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has gone under the knife. Revitalizing the 200-year-old classic is the Beverly Hills-based performing arts center, The Wallis, which has commissioned a reimagining by Four Larks, an innovative L.A.-based theater company known for their interdisciplinary stylings. In this intimate world premiere production — set inside The Wallis’s Lovelace Studio Theater — an animated amalgamation is consumed by its own strange beauty.

Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus tells of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who, reeling from the death of his mother, pushes moral boundaries by creating his own humanlike creature in a laboratory. Horrified by his achievement, Frankenstein abandons the monster, who returns to him seeking revenge. If you aren’t steeped in the intricacies of Shelley’s plot, you’re likely to be befuddled by this overhauled adaptation — a patchwork of whimsical symbolism by creators Mat Diafos Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, and Jesse Rasmussen.

Four Larks’ production is its own Frankenstein’s monster. A lofty synthesis of poetry and prose (lifted in part from Shelley’s novel), modern dance, atonal music, and video projections, it’s a multi-sensory feast that over-stimulates the brain. Even the towering set (a mad scientist’s lair, ornately decorated by Peters-Lazaro and Regan Baumgarten) is imposing. With so much happening at once, it’s hard to follow the story. Even more confounding is the insertion of author Mary Shelley as a character in her own work — narrating and embodying her characters — though her identity is never made clear outside the program.

As jarring as these elements may be, Four Larks’ artistry is undeniable. Sweeney’s direction is highly original, influenced heavily by a collaborative ensemble. Twelve diverse, multi-talented performers — with skin exposed and minimal constraints by costumer Lena Sands — rotate roles that require acting, contorting, singing, and instrumentation. Even inanimate props take on lives of their own — the strings inside a piano appear as the inner-workings and organs of a cadaver one would dissect in biology class; the piano guts fit well into the science-lab imagery of the piece. Indeed, the work is a testament to science — players and properties becoming lab rats, in a sense, contributing as cogs in a machine to its continuous momentum.

Sweeney’s wondrous musical compositions are discordant and operatic. When a singular voice finishes what sounds like an improvisational passage, other players join in with tight harmonies. Lukas Papenfusscline (“Capt. Walton”) and Joanna Lynn-Jacobs (“Future Female”) are particular standouts.

As the monster, Max Baumgarten provides the intensity required of the misunderstood villain. In the creature’s birth scene, Baumgarten’s physicality is breathtaking, jolting to life in electrifying fashion. His murderous streak proves especially terrifying. When the mutant stumbles upon a family in the woods, the audience steps into his shoes, seeing humanity through his own eyes. In people, the creature recognizes his own desires, fears, loneliness, and rage.

Inundating the production are its technical aspects. (Opening night displayed multiple mishaps; one required halting the show mid-production, extending its 75-minute run-time to 85.) When they’re working, they’re glorious. Brandon Baruch’s lighting design is haunting, especially in its ascending shadows and storm-like sequences (amped beautifully by Alex Hawthorn’s sound design). Laskfar Vortok’s projections highlight the work’s multi perspectives — whether super-cutting an 18th-century aesthetic with modern imagery or broadcasting overhanging video cameras with Picasso-like cubism.

Those expecting a traditional telling of Frankenstein may be largely disappointed — or pleasantly surprised — in this warped curiosity. Because its overblown artistry bogs down its inventiveness, it may leave people perplexed. Ironically, a work warning against the unrestrained gets trapped by it: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Fortunately, underneath its newfangled exterior lies a visceral center beating with ingenuity. You just gotta look past the stitches.

photos by Kevin Parry

Lovelace Studio Theater, Wallis Annenberg
Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
ends on March 1, 2020
EXTENDED to March 7, 2020
for tickets, call 310.746.4000
or visit The Wallis

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