For its production of “Frankenstein,” Cohesion Theatre decided on an adaption of the classic story told through the perspective of Victor Frankenstein’s adult daughter who attempts to bring her father back to life. The result is insanely creative in addition to being a poetic, lyrical examination of grief and loss told through stellar direction, acting and production design.
I entered a Saturday performance of “Frankenstein” frantic to find the entrance in the basement of the unheated Canton church where Cohesion Theatre Company performs. I was five minutes late because of a ride with an Uber driver unfamiliar with Baltimore, and Cohesion, impressively, sticks to its 8 p.m. curtain time.
The set is arranged on the side of the space closest to the entrance, so audience members effectively have to enter the theater from “backstage”; I unknowingly crossed the stage trying to find an entrance. The actor playing Dr. Frankenstein helpfully directed me to my seat.
My disorientation eerily matched the beginning of the show, when the central character, Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter, Victoria, is in a haze of grief after the death of her father. Characters from her life appear and disappear with spotlighted monologues directed out to the audience while Victoria flusters upstage, grappling with her despair through an obsession with resurrection. Like father, like daughter. So begins a journey through loss that piles up literally limb by limb.
The star of Cohesion’s production is a mesmerizing, larger-than-human-size puppet operated by the actor playing Dr. Frankenstein/Alphonse, Steven Howison. The creation by puppet designer Jess Rassp adds an intriguing dimension to an already excellent production. Victoria (a powerful, emotionally raw Molly Margulies) follows in her father’s footsteps, trying to bring him back to life through the creation of a monster.
Victoria lifts a large, anatomically shaped heart that lights up red, and places it in the cavity of her creation, which comes to life attached to Howison’s limbs. The actor holds the pieces of Rassp’s puppet in front of his own limbs like a tandem skydiver, and the puppet takes on a life of its own.
The monster immediately makes it clear that he is not Victoria’s father, but is an entirely new being of her creation. Victoria flees her university position to a vacation home, but the monster finds her. The vacation home scene is staged imposingly about 15 feet above the audience on the side of the space, one of many thoughtful choices by director Melissa LaMartina.
LaMartina beautifully moves the actors around different levels on the main and side stages. Each death scene ends with the deceased character lowering into a shallow “grave” on the upper stage. Yes, each death scene.
The monster kills, one by one, every important person in Victoria’s life, because she will not listen to his pleas for the very human need for companionship and love. With each death, a limb of the monster lights up–a red heart and blue brain gain a yellow arm, a yellow thigh, another yellow arm. The creative effect is enthralling.
Supporting this innovative use of artistic puppetry is a beautiful script by Robert Kauzlaric, delivered with skill and nuance by a talented cast. Many sparse but effective lines resonate: “I am malicious only because I am alone.” “You have nothing; just the stories you tell yourself.” “I ought to be your Adam, but rather I am a fallen angel.” “Nothing is so painful as a great and sudden change.”
Standouts in the supporting cast are Cynthia Miller as Victoria’s mother Caroline, whose tenuous emotion is particularly touching in a scene when she grieves the death of her young son so soon after losing her husband. Caitlin Rife is perfectly cast as Victoria’s helpful, empathetic friend, eliciting a very rare laugh or two; and Kim Le is compelling in her smaller role as the family’s aide, Justine.
“Frankenstein” closes this weekend, and I highly recommend being in one of its final audiences. The production is tight, creative and thought-provoking. It examines grief with a script and artistic interpretation that create distance, making it easier to consume without being entirely heartbreaking.
“Frankenstein” runs through March 10 at United Evangelical Church, 923 S. East Ave. in Baltimore. For tickets and more information, visit cohesiontheatre.org/frankenstein-1.