The scene: summer, 1817; a young Mary Shelley enters a competition with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their close friend Lord Byron to see who among them can come up with the best ghost story. The product is published anonymously in early 1918 and quickly becomes a staple, perhaps even the beginning, of science fiction literature.
Over 200 years later, Mary Shelley’s story and the history behind her creation come to life in a spectacular production by Manual Cinema. Staged at Court Theatre, Frankenstein tells the familiar story of the arrogant young scientist Victor Frankenstein who transgresses the laws of nature to create a monstrous being—but with a twist.
After all, this production cannot be described simply as a play or a musical, because it is neither. Rather, Frankenstein combines elements of shadow puppetry, live silent film, and stop-motion animation to tell the many layers of the story. True to the style of Manual Cinema, whose co-artistic directors include University of Chicago faculty and alumni, live musicians and vocalists perform alongside the images on screen to produce a visual and auditory experience unlike any other. Manual Cinema has come a long way since it began in 2010. With accolades from the National Puppet Festival to the Emmys under its belt, the performance collective is, as The New York Times put it, “conjuring phantasms to die for.”
The use of multiple media helps to expound upon the many different layers of the Frankenstein story. One layer, of course, focuses on the story of Frankenstein himself. Another showcases the creative process behind the story, going into detail about the challenges Shelley faced in her personal life as well as those she faced as a woman in the early 19th century; this background, juxtaposed with the Frankenstein story, gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the well-known, well-loved story. In a meta way, it also doubles the figure of the “creator”—both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein are played by the Manual Cinema’s co-artistic director Sarah Fornace, and both are responsible for creating a “hideous progeny” (a phrase Shelley used to describe her novel, and one that could equally describe the creature).
What current theatregoers will not realize is that a previous rendition of the play, the version shown during previews, included a third layer—the story of Fanny Imlay, Shelley’s half-sister. Parallels between biography and fiction traversed the production as the relationship between Imlay (played by the same actor who portrays Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein’s wife) and Shelley spoke to the overarching theme of abandonment. Just as Frankenstein deserts his monster after bringing him to life, Shelley neglects Imlay while writing her novel. What responsibility, Manual Cinema asks, do creators have for their creations?
“In a story so focused on the female experience, we felt it important to reflect the female perspective,” explained Fornace. The production features a powerful all-female cast, doubling roles onstage as well as multitasking between puppeteering and acting. The result is a rich and emotional product that pulls no punches, calling out the careless misogyny that so many women recognize.
Fornace also explained that the absence of spoken dialogue in the play (not a single word is uttered in the production, although words appear onscreen) limits the scope of the storyline, making the adaptation less faithful to the source. Literature purists may be disappointed with the verisimilitude of this play to the novel, considering that the production takes numerous liberties with the well-known story. However, the piece nonetheless manages to relay the main ideas and events of the narrative, taking diversions to lend humor to the plot and to further the artistic directors unique interpretation of the story’s meaning.
The predominance of shadows and silhouettes above speech makes the versatility and expression of the cast all the more incredible. Fornace evokes empathy as well as disdain in separate situations, leaving the audience to wonder whether it really is a single person or a double who performs her multiple roles. Similarly, Leah Casey’s portrayal of Percy Shelley reveals his lyrical writing as a Romantic poet even as he remains completely silent.
The use of music, central to Manual Cinema’s productions, also makes the play unique. Though the audience can clearly see the musicians performing on stage (as opposed to the actors, who primarily inhabit the shadows), music and visuals blend seamlessly. As the music helps the audience experience the story without words and the story helps contextualize the music, both narrative and sound blend together.
Those coming to this production hoping to see the “creature” at its most monstrous and grotesque might be disappointed. With the precedence of SFX makeup used on the creature in other productions, this rendition comparatively has rather unimpressive and unconvincing costuming. The creature ends up looking less like an undead monster, and more like a rag doll built by a child. We almost wonder whether something so not intimidating can be capable of the violence seen on screen. Audiences either come to sympathize with the creature or are left hoping they were watching something more “believable.”
Yet it is clear that Manual Cinema’s production of Frankenstein goes beyond the archetypes portrayed by popular culture to expound upon the genius of its creator, Mary Shelley. This is certainly not the Frankenstein we have encountered before. At the end, one is left wondering: Who really is the Modern Prometheus?