A puppet-driven hodgepodge romp through Mary Shelley's most famous work
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Oct. 1, 2010
Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd., 573-2540 www.troublepuppet.com
Through Oct. 3
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.
Frankenstein is a man of parts. Spare parts. [rimshot]. Remember that Frankenstein is the monster's creator's name, not the monster's. Remember, too, that the original story didn't come from Hollywood but from the pen of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, conjured when she was on holiday with her husband, Percy, and Lord Byron and a couple others. (See Ken Russell's Gothic with a thick chunk of salt.)
Trouble Puppet's Frankenstein is a play of parts. Disparate parts – like those parts, from various dead humans, that make up the Monster or the Creature or the Doctor's Greatest Achievement and His Most Unforgiving Folly.
Chapter titles and synopses with that sort of initial capitalization, as seen in old silent movies: That's one of the parts, projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. Also on that screen, as appropriate: relevant animated imagery and shadow-puppeted backstory.
This is a puppet show, don't forget. (You might forget, very briefly, although not as easily as you did if you saw Trouble Puppet's staging of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. That earlier show was simpler and relentlessly dark and fully engulfing; Frankenstein is more of a mixed bag. Pieces. Parts.)
Again, as in earlier shows, director Connor Hopkins has gathered a group of people who 1) manipulate puppets in ways that make the damned things seem alive and 2) speak their roles as well as some of the better nonpuppeting actors in town. Here they work to tell the story of Dr. Frankenstein's monster, of how it was created, how it escaped from an abandoned Romanian asylum's impromptu laboratory – say it: la-BOR-a-tory – and made its way to revolution-darkened Paris, there to wage terror almost as horrendous as what the French people were visiting upon their erstwhile rulers.
This story's performed in segments, in chapters (with those title cards, aforementioned, between them). This story's told with no small amount of humor, even in the grislier parts, and this helps to flavor the proceedings, and the proceedings can use the flavor. There's so much going on – in the plot and its backstories and asides, on the various sections of the stage and screen – that the action drags a bit in places, as if the narrative monster that Hopkins has caused to exist has hurt one of its legs while trying to do too much in too short a time. The first shadow-puppet section onscreen, for example: While a required elucidation of the story and an ingenious gambit toward depicting a character's memory, the video of shadow-puppets seemed clunky and not easy to follow – forgivable when performed live but not so much when video'd.
Thing is, anything clunky here will stick out in comparison to the smoothness with which the main puppets are put into motion, especially the dynamic, wonderfully articulated Monster that bounded from rooftop to rooftop like a steroidal patchwork version of Springheel Jack.
This show's not the brilliant revelation of Just What Power Puppets Can Command that The Jungle was. This show is more a hodgepodge romp through the plot and themes of Mary Shelley's most famous work, suffused with wit and proletariat unrest and a Sister (the progressive Mrs. Frankenstein) who's Doing It for Herself, lighted by Stephen Pruitt and adorned by the original music of Justin Sherburn.
Mostly we're thinking that, if the darkly incessant might of The Jungle and the staggered madcap energy of this Frankenstein can be successfully joined and, ah, galvanized ... we're in for one hell of a spectacle when Trouble Puppet takes on Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker next fall.