HERE Arts Center / Dream Music Puppetry Program January 12, 2008
Victor Frankenstein, his sister Elizabeth and brother William played hide-and-seek in the woods outside Geneva, their laughter and giggling voiced by two performers seated in plain view on either side of a small proscenium stage. This was the most lighthearted moment in Frankenstein (Mortal Toys), a bittersweet prelude to Victor’s study at the University of Ingolstadt, followed by the flowering of his scientific genius and the disasters his creation would wreak upon his family.
Frankenstein (Mortal Toys), a dramatization of Mary Shelley’s novel by Erik Ehn, was presented at HERE’s Dream Music Puppetry Program in an adaptation for puppet theater by Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson of Automata, a Los Angeles-based workshop dedicated to preserving and revitalizing marginal theatrical forms. Puppeteers Sarah Brown, Victoria Keddie, Eli Presser, and Jamie Samowitz manipulated the characters from behind the stage, which was roughly the size of a widescreen TV, while actors Chris Payne and Dana L. Wilson sat to its left and right, narrating the performance and sometimes playing small musical instruments.
The writing clung close to Shelley’s original, and the production design and live music by Severin Behnen were generously slathered with Gothic foreboding. The small wooden rod puppets, operated from above, were painted like 19th-century portraits save for the monster, whose gray, indistinct body was adorned with the head of an ancient Chinese sculpture. Brooding arctic landscapes, treacherous cliffs and darkling forests, all crafted from wood and foam, dwarfed the small players. In keeping with Romantic tradition, every fiber of this terrain seemed attuned to the character’s emotional states, and shifts in scale and sudden reveals gave the entire production a pop-up-book feel. Frankenstein’s delirium was punctuated by a macabre dream in which Elizabeth’s dress slipped off of her body to reveal only bones and offal. Delicate strings suddenly stripped the trees of foliage following Frankenstein’s promise to make the monster a bride, and after Elizabeth’s nuptial murder, the sails of passing ships were whisked into the sky.
With these simple puppets and jury-rigged special effects, Automata created an event in which text and dialogue met stagecraft on equal terms. A twist of the rod or the slightest movement of an arm was all the motility these muted characters were allowed. My eyes registered the flattened figures, with their limited movements, and the transformations of the landscape as visual vignettes to an oral narrative tracing around the action, not from the action.
This dynamic between the visual and oral narrative was interrupted by a flashback of the monster’s encounter with the blind man, shown in a digitally projected stop-motion video of animated wooden toys, a jarring divergence that seemed unnecessary. As fruitful as an intersection between heterogeneous methods can sometimes be, this cameo appearance, so to speak, only served to re-marginalize stop-motion within the context of the puppet play itself.
By placing the actors in plain view, Automata follows in the tradition of Henri Signoret’s Le Petit Théâtre des Marionnettes (1888-1894), where poets read the text while other artists operated the puppets. The reading itself was actually a series of dramatic monologues—with Payne often “conversing” with himself as both Frankenstein and the monster. I often found myself contending with the gazes of the actors as they narrated the story. By deliberately making eye contact, especially in the midst of dialogue, the actors compounded my sense that puppetry, as a performance schema, relies on the puppet-object’s alienating simulacrum of a living being, which embalms every act and gesture of the performer with allegory, allusion, and doubt. Taken side by side, the “actual” person (actor) and the “differed” person (puppet) mirrored the Frankenstein/monster duality, essentializing the symbolic dimensions of experience and subject.
Alternative theater often flexes its postmodern muscle by bearing marginalized forms into our midst as mere anachronistic novelties. Frankenstein (Mortal Toys), however, did not stray into ironic asides, blatant contemporary allegories, or insipidly self-aware nods to the audience. The production fit almost perfectly within the Gothic tradition. Located somewhere between voice and object, the proto-trans-humanist Frankenstein grappled with the fate of his utopian enterprise, the monster grappled with abandonment, while both grappled with being. All was tragedy, loss, and regret.