Dallas is being haunted by a couple of very old frights. But one of them’s been given a nasty new jolt of life. The other’s mostly been decked out with some fancy duds that don’t really suit the old fella. One feels more pity than fear.
Dallas theater companies have staged the two great modern myths invented by 19th-century Gothic authors. The production of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ that recently closed at Theatre Three was goth-y Gothic. It was a mildly kinky dress-up with a few complications that lent the Victorian tale some new but not-exactly-drop-your-tea-cup surprises.
On the other hand, the ‘Frankenstein’ that’s opened at the Kalita Humphreys Theater – a co-production of the Dallas Theater Center and SMU – offers galvanizing Gothic. It’s all harrowing shadows and deafening electro-shock, with Kim Fischer (above) delivering a titanic performance as the abused Creature who stalks his creator through darkness, rain and blood.
That is the traditional gift for a novel’s 200th birthday, isn’t it? Fresh blood?
From its start, Gothic literature reheated and spiced up leftovers from the past. It’s no accident the Gothic more or less began in the late 18th century when the Industrial Revolution was just gearing up. Artifacts of Old World aristocracy and medieval Catholicism were crumbling away. Economic, social and technological rifts were starting to bury them.
But partly as a result, those relics were gaining a sexy, new aura and power. As Walter Kendrick argues in ‘The Thrill of Fear,‘ they had the precious value of the antique, the repressed. They signified the old and otherworldly. We’re talking about monks and graveyards, castles and monasteries, virtuous maidens imperiled by brooding aristocrats. Think of ‘Dracula,’ and you’ve pretty much got the Gothic wrapped up in a coffin, a crucifix and an opera cape.
But Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus ‘ (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1868) are distinctly modern, regardless of the garlands of Gothic gloom they borrowed to cheer up the place. ‘Frankenstein’ – adapted to the stage by Nick Dear and thunderously directed by Joel Ferrell – is the story of a man inventing another man, indeed, a superman, and then abandoning him to his fate. What could be more modern and high-tech? It’s the Garden of Eden without God.
Shelley was, in fact, criticized for her novel’s godlessness: The Creature may quote Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ but when did this new Adam ever acquire a divinely created soul? All it took for medical student Victor Frankenstein to bring him to life were some stolen body parts and the right voltage.
That’s one reason Shelley’s later revisions backed away from her revolutionary original, inserting moralizing sentiments about how ‘scientists shouldn’t play God.’ It’s the same fear of technology and modernity that often surges through monster movies, waving torches and pitchforks. After all, young Frankenstein did defy the period’s limits on science, nature and morality (what limitation is greater than death?). But though the arrogant student may not win many popularity contests, he’s headed down the same road that leads to heart transplants and prosthetic limbs. And, oh yes, to our arguments over artificial intelligence and genetic modification.
Meanwhile, in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ – in the new adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, directed by Christie Vela at Theatre Three – a doctor finds hidden inside himself impulses so contrary to his own enlightened persona they might as well be a separate creature. Which he undertakes to chemically distill and extract. But he ends up unleashing it instead – and enjoying it. And down that particular road to hell lie Freudian therapy, dissociative identity disorder and anti-psychotics. And yes, lobotomies and brain implants.
Consequently, both ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Jekyll’ split off from the traditional Gothic: They involve medical advances intended to improve humanity, however beastly those attempted advances turn out. They hold implications for our future. That’s a far cry from Edgar Allan Poe spooking readers over being buried alive in a cobwebbed wine cellar. ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Jekyll’ are the moment when Gothic horror leaps into science fiction – and crashes on us.
Spoiler alert: Despite their good intentions, despite all the newfangled devices and serums, neither doctor takes home a Nobel Prize. But what also unites ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Jekyll’ – beyond their mad scientists – is the unbreakable bond (and unending struggle) between the supposed hero and the supposed monster.
When Danny Boyle directed the world premiere of Nick Dear’s ‘Frankenstein’ at London’s National Theatre in 2011, his play boasted a casting coup: Its two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternated in the lead roles of the Creature and Victor. Boyle’s production was brilliantly theatrical and justly popular. It has been one of the biggest hits of National Theatre Live’s telecasts for years now, and the next time it re-runs at the Angelika Film Center or the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, mark your calendar.
Double-casting like this is an old marketing gimmick that can feed off actorly self-indulgence. But twinning the actors and their roles actually embodied Shelley’s unsettled attitudes toward Victor and his Creature. Despite her novel’s power and undeniable influence, Shelley stumbles around a lot at the start, like the novice storyteller she is. But all those multiple narrators writing letters to each other eventually lead to Victor recounting his struggles to Robert Walton, the polar explorer who found him lost on the Arctic ice. And that account leads Victor to relate the time when the Creature narrated his own story to him.
In other words – to paraphrase Jill Lepore – the Creature’s story is nestled inside Victor’s, like an infant inside its mother. The monster’s not fully ‘born’ or fully human until he can turn autobiographical and tell us his own story.
To be sure, both the young scientist and his creation are unreliable narrators, but they are also inseparable, intertwined, at times both compromised and sympathetic. Critic Lawrence Lipking in 1996 argued that this moral complexity is a chief reason ‘Frankenstein’ has spawned so many differing interpretations that don’t necessarily cancel each other. There have been feminist ones (Victor ‘births’ a man because he wants to take on a woman’s power, and the Creature’s violent birth recalls Mary Shelley’s own harrowing difficulties with pregnancies and infant death) and racialist ones (the Creature is described as having yellowish skin, distinctly non-European features and is even called a slave) .
Creator and Creature, Lipking argues, are on a moral seesaw throughout the novel, thanks in part to those different narrators. It’s the loss of this ambivalence that flaws Dear’s adaptation, making it teeter severely to one side. Dear has said he didn’t want to eliminate Walton and the other narrators at first but finally killed them off to simplify the storyline.
He did keep the Creature’s voice, though – he still gets to tell his story as he does in the novel. In most movie incarnations, particularly the iconic 1931 Boris Karloff film, the Creature only grunts or snarls. (One could argue – as Karloff did and subsequent critics have – that Karloff’s tremendous, mute anguish actually made the monster more pitiable than any eloquent plea.)
Dear definitely lets the Creature have his say here. But this leads to a simplistic turning-of-the-moral-tables. Dear’s adaptation indicts Frankenstein, over and over. From the ear-splitting, electrocution-crucifixion that opens Ferrell’s production at the Kalita, we see the Creature as an abused and abandoned child. Meanwhile, Victor, that Romantic genius, is off being obsessed and broody. He’s the ultimate bad dad, and we’re back, once again, with Hollywood’s mad scientist, unconcerned about the human fallout from his quest for knowledge.
“Who is the real monster?” asks the DTC’s marketing campaign. A safe bet: It’s ol’ Vic. But to paraphrase Lipking again (from ‘Frankenstein, The True Story’): Who among us, in Victor’s position, would not give the Creature a good meal, get him some special-ed help, maybe fix him up with a girlfriend? “Surely such treatment would result not only in a better Creature but a happier ending for everyone … [But] it does not have much to do with the novel that Mary Shelley wrote. For ‘Frankenstein’ does not let its readers feel good. It presents them with genuine, insoluble problems, not with any easy way out.”
To take one such insoluble problem: Should Victor create the mate the lonely Creature longs for – doing this out of human sympathy but also to make up for his abandonment of the poor outcast? Or should Victor destroy his female work-in-progress because this same Creature is a multiple murderer?
With Alex Organ’s absolutely chilly performance as Victor and with Fischer as a half-naked, half-starving man-child crying out for justice and companionship, it’s pretty hard not to feel some radical empathy for the lonely, brutalized Other.
But read Shelley’s original scene in her novel. Victor’s dreams of besting God have ended with a “demon” at the window whose grin expresses “the utmost extent of malice and treachery.” In which case, we may feel a little more hesitant about giving such a Creature the chance to replicate himself. True, who are we to judge the poor wretch? As a species, we have been massively murderous ever since we climbed down from the trees. But that’s precisely why one might hesitate unleashing a super-predator, a malevolent upgrade whose righteous savagery is our own programming writ large.
Indeed, critics and scholars used to argue the Creature is malevolent precisely because Shelley was demonstrating Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s moral philosophy. It’s human social development that generates the creature’s alienation and rage. We humans make him that way through our misbegotten political, social, educational and domestic brutalities: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of [God],” writes Rousseau, “everything degenerates in the hands of man.”
But while Victor (and the other people who treat the Creature cruelly) are the real monsters, doesn’t the doctor also have a just cause for revenge? He primarily wants to kill the Creature for murdering Frankenstein’s innocent brother – who was killed for very little reason.
So it seems true justice is one of the ‘genuine, insoluble problems’ the novel mucks around in. Not surprisingly, later scholars began to slide the other way: ‘Frankenstein’ may not be Mary’s demonstration of Rousseau’s ideas at all. It’s actually her devastating critique of his (and her husband Percy’s) notions about atheism, science and the innate goodness of humankind. In its own way, her novel is a Frankensteinian thought experiment: Let’s see just how well these ideas play out when we strap flesh and blood to them and run some electric current through. Whatever ramifications Mary may have intended, her story and its fearsome moral implications have lurched ever onward, taking on a life of their own.
I confess these thoughts about the lopsided (in)justice of Dear’s adaptation didn’t occur until I saw Ferrell’s production at the Kalita. That’s partly because, in watching the National Theatre production twice, seeing Cumberbatch and Miller flip roles, one’s sympathies and attention tended to switch back and forth and tumble together, as they do in the novel.
But at the Theater Center, we are on the side of the persecuted monster all the way. We see Fischer’s creature – after his screaming z-z-z-zap into life – as innocent. He plays happily, banging away idly on an empty bucket. What we witness, in effect, is the brutalization of such a child into an unstoppable avenged and serial killer. Victor, in contrast, is all head and no heart from the start. I mean, how many times can a man put off marrying his beautiful fiancé because he needs to attend to his little cadaverous hobby in the attic?
Something else the DTC production underscores: the adaptation’s homoeroticism. For decades, feminist critics have noted that women don’t fare particularly well in Mary’s novel. Mostly, they’re either dead or soon-to-be dead. They’re martyrs to masculine ambitions. One could even argue the Creature sees his own future female mate like a man ordering the ultimate sex doll: He’s just putting in a new request with the Frankenstein Factory.
But while the victimization of the feminine (even its near-absence) ramps up the egocentric, masculine nature of Victor and his ambitions, it’s everyone else‘s reactions to the Creature that are so telling here. A single glimpse and, male or female, they recoil in disgust and hatred. All except for Victor. Onstage, he extols his Creature as magnificent, even glorious – long after Shelley’s novel has Victor jumping away in fright. The medical student may just be thrilled that his experiment has surpassed expectations. But the lean, muscular Fischer remains barely clothed throughout, wearing only a breechcloth and a long overcoat, while Organ rhapsodizes about his near-naked presence. He does this even as the Creature’s sutured scalp and greasy hair make him look as though Victor has gone trolling for some seriously roughed-up rough trade.
To top it all, Frankenstein decides not to kill the Creature – while standing over the body of his own, freshly strangled wife (played by the easy and warm Jolly Abraham). Soon, when the two men pursue each other across the Arctic ice, their relationship definitely has moved on from parent-and-child, scientist-and-specimen, artist-and-artwork, celebrity-and-stalker or whatever it was to begin with. It’s become something sexual and extreme and broken. It’s like the world’s worst gay divorce. On a badly planned, cross-country ski vacation.
Having said all that – yes, sorry, it’s a lot, there’s only 200 years of interpretations and films to go through to get to this new stage version – it must be said the DTC’s ‘Frankenstein’ is probably Ferrell’s starkest, most forceful effort since ‘Cabaret.’ Amelia Bransky’s dark but swirling set embellished by David Bengali’s flashing projections help to make this one of the more sophisticated and boldly dramatic-with-a-capital-D uses of the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
It takes a degree of chutzpah to follow Danny Boyle’s strobe-lit box of wonders at the National – considering that company’s bountiful rehearsal time and resources (real fire! real rain! naked Cumberbatch!). Inevitably, perhaps, Ferrell starts to over-compensate. He feels the repeated need to overwhelm us. The show keeps banging and shouting, This is Hideous! This is Terrifying! – via the blinding lights by Tyler Micoleau and the deafening sound design by Ryan Rumery.
The bruisings get predictable. By the end, we just know Ferrell will whip up a final, full-stop, symphonic crash. Yet Shelley’s novel actually finishes on a hushed, open-ended note. Remarkably, it seems to anticipate Roy Blatty’s famous, touching farewell in ‘Bladerunner.’ But then, that shouldn’t surprise: Replicants (and the cyborg hosts of ‘Westworld’) are the sci-fi children of Shelley’s man-made man. In both the film and the HBO TV series, they even stalk and kill their Oedipal father-creators.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Blatty says, hunched over, drenched in a downpour. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” He echoes the Creature’s own prediction – spoken to Walton onboard ship – that he’ll die soon “and these burning miseries will be extinct. … my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds….’ He sprung from the cabin-window [and] was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.”
A novel about the spark of re-birth, humans cheating death with a new kind of creation, ends in drift and diffusion, an inevitable return to emptiness and the elements. The DTC production would be even more moving, more ominous, if it ended with only shadows and the sound of wind filling the theater.
Nick Dear overly simplified ‘Frankenstein’ to tally up who’s worse, creation or creator. Jeffrey Hatcher, in contrast, has fancied up ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ and at Theatre Three, director Christie Vela obliges. This particular corner of Victorian London is all lit up in lurid red like an Amsterdam brothel on payday (the lighting is by Aaron Johansen).
Stevenson’s novella is a moral allegory about our divided human nature and our unacknowledged drives as much as it is a spooky story about a monster on a rampage. But Hatcher has divvied up the central split personality, so that the vicious Mr. Hyde is now played by four different actors. A pity no one thought to play ‘Can You See The Real Me?’ from The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ – if just to wink at the whole idea of schizophrenia squared.
A four-sided Hyde lets us jump into Jungian archetypes, multiple personality syndrome or other waters – even the way we hide behind online aliases and digital avatars today. But it’s worth remembering that Mr. Hyde doesn’t actually exist in Stevenson’s original story. Not as any kind of separate being, that is, and certainly not as a tag team. He is simply Dr. Jekyll on a really wicked bender; he’s the evil inside Jekyll concentrated and boosted and let loose but still just Jekyll. With four different incarnations of Hyde running around, that fact gets watered down. Not made more complicated or more interesting; it mostly gets forgotten.
In 1868, Stevenson didn’t have the psychiatric tools to explain Jekyll’s compulsive need to create an alter ego that runs brutally amok. But he probably sensed a bifurcation in Victorian England. And probably himself as well. He was Scottish, so he felt a different relationship to Victorian ideals of civilizing progress, propriety, Christianity and imperial power. After all, his most famous novel, ‘Treasure Island,’ is about pirates who escape ‘civilization’ and mutiny against their captain. They’re led by a one-legged outlaw who shrewdly plays at good or evil as the situation warrants. In fact, when it came to ‘Jekyll,’ Stevenson received a letter from a reader proposing a real-life case of multiple personality disorder as a plausible explanation for Hyde. And the author rejected it. That was too easy, too particular a source for this abidingly human evil.
Stevenson was a far more assured storyteller than Shelley, if not as visionary. His prose has a calm, clear and unassertive manner. For one thing, Stevenson doesn’t employ Shelley’s complicated multiple narrators: ‘The Strange Case’ is told from the point of view of Jekyll’s good friend and unruffled lawyer, Gabriel Utterson (the kind of fellow who admonishes others with “tut, tut”).
This entire approach of the sensible chap encountering something incomprehensible is important, especially its tone. Stevenson’s prose alone conveys an entire world of stability and accepted behavior, a world that gets turned inside-out when Utterson discovers what ugliness his friend has done – indeed, by implication, what any of us is capable of doing in private.
Dr. Henry Jekyll embodies the kind of upstanding Englishman once hailed as a “true gentleman,” someone whose name is followed by “M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D. and F.R.S.” (doctor of medicine, doctor of civil law, doctor of laws and Fellow of the Royal Society).
But such Victorian restraint and respectability are basic elements that Hatcher’s adaptation lacks – at least in Vela’s darkly-lit melodrama. We need an impeccable Jekyll because Hyde is a rebuke to everything he represents: He’s unreasoning, cruel, impulsive, grasping, violent. He’s the underside of the Empire and its upper-class masters. He’s little more than raw, selfish force. In effect – as Jekyll finds to his shock – the two men need each other to function, to hold themselves together. There is no monster and good guy – there is only the one being, the individual English gentleman, honorable and horrible, virtuous and vicious.
But when it came for Hatcher to adapt all this to the stage, it turns out Stevenson’s story is dramatically a little flat: Hyde’s lack of any obvious motivation for his murderousness doesn’t give him much depth or character interest. His crimes are almost random. He’s just, you know, really bad. A blank malignancy.
So Hatcher invents some plot. He gives Jekyll, played by Michael Federico, a reason to murder Sir Danvers Carew. Hatcher first updates Jekyll himself into yet another one of our twitchy, forensic geniuses, an Asperger-y compulsive like Dr. House or Monk or the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. He can solve mysteries with a single, brilliant insight. During a homicide dissection in an operating theater, Jekyll can’t help but make Dr. Carew look like a fool and a perv. Carew (Robert Gemaehlich) responds with huffing threats of dismissal and exposure.
So it’s a matter of self-defense. And Hyde is Jekyll’s instrument. Farewell, Carew.
In a program note, Federico declares the obsessive Jekyll “kind of insane.” But if Jekyll starts utterly manic and neurotic like this, then turning into Hyde and using him to kill his enemies really isn’t that much of a deep dive, is it? And Stevenson’s moral allegory becomes not all that scary, either, because it’s no longer so applicable to the rest of us. We all have our bad habits that are tough to stop but how many of us sane, proper folks in the seats are likely, after a drink or five, to wander the streets and bludgeon little girls?
Unfortunately for Hatcher’s approach, Hyde becomes not a model of what’s morally intrinsic to all of us, even if it’s just an attraction to the idea of unrestrained impulse. Instead, he’s a model of psychopathology: Jekyll starts as an intense neurotic who soon deteriorates into bipolar disorder as Hyde and finally into uncontrollable fits of violent psychosis. Stevenson’s novella offers no ‘solution’ to human evil. It is innate. Hatcher’s adaptation, on the other hand, makes one wonder if Jekyll could have been helped with the right course of lithium and rehab.
If I were asked to cast any local actor to play Mr. Hyde, my sole and immediate choice would be Vela’s, absolutely: Jeremy Schwartz. And he doesn’t disappoint here. Simply by his size, his presence, his manner, Schwartz’ Hyde is the glowering thug of your nightmares. But of course, he’s only one-fourth of this Hyde, so the character’s fearfulness (and Schwartz’s own fearlessness) are watered down. And it’s watered down even more when he has to turn around and play the reasonable Mr. Utterson as well.
Which is ironic. And telling. Schwartz’ doubled-sided performance as Hyde / Utterson encapsulates what Stevenson wanted to convey about the inseparable nature of human good and human evil.
And Schwartz does it more succinctly, more convincingly than anything else in Hatcher’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’