With the exceptions of Lazarus and, later, of Jesus himself, the shambling Creature created by Victor Frankenstein from the wormy remnants of exhumed corpses is the best-known embodiment of resurrection of the dead in Western culture. Since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, a multitude of movies and stage plays based upon or adapted from the novel has left an indelible mark in the collective consciousness, with actors ranging from Colin Clive to Kenneth Branagh portraying the ill-starred scientist, and actors from Boris Karloff to Benedict Cumberbatch portraying his Creature.
Beginning Thursday, October 13, a singular adaptation of Shelley’s tale by Jim Helsinger will receive eight performances at the Bridge Street Theatre Mainstage in Catskill. “Singular,” because Helsinger’s version, which premiered at Florida’s Orlando Shakespeare Theater in 1998, is written for one actor, who plays Victor, the Creature and six other characters over the course of an hour and 45 minutes. The actor who will dare this literal and figurative monster of a role is Steven Patterson, associate director of Bridge Street Theatre.
Patterson is no stranger to daunting roles. He recently played King Lear at Indiana’s Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and he has done virtuoso turns in solo performances based on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the life of Jean Genet, respectively. Even so, this role – which he has inhabited before, at a revival of the play by the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in 2006 – is particularly challenging. We recently exchanged a bevy of e-mails in which Patterson spoke about the physical and mental demands of the play, as well as the apparently deathless nature of Mary Shelley’s story and the various ways it has been interpreted and reinterpreted over the years in film, on stage and in other media. An edited transcript of our cyberconversation follows:
Performing a one-person, multi-character show is somewhat akin to running a marathon. How do you prepare (or train) to deal with issues of stamina or sustaining the overall tone and tempo of the piece?
The sheer amount of memorization is certainly the most daunting element, particularly for someone of my age. The fact that I’ve performed the piece a decade ago certainly helps, at least psychologically. Physically – well, I am ten years older than when I did this last and it just about killed me then, so we’ll see whether I survive this run or not.
The other challenge of this piece is that I have to play eight different characters, and on occasion hold up both ends of a conversation between two people. Each character needs to have a clear, distinct and separate voice, personality and physicality, not to mention the range of accents I have to cover in the course of the evening: British, Swiss, German, French, as well as creating a totally unique voice for the Creature, who’s been cobbled together from body parts (including his vocal apparatus) and utterly deformed by the thunderstorm during his creation, and who needs to learn how to make all these elements work together as a whole in order to even be able to speak. Yeah, it’s a challenge.
You mentioned that your having done this play previously is helpful. Has your approach to the material changed? If so, how different will your embodiment of the role be this time around?
I think any time you get to revisit a role the approach always winds up being different, because you’re not the same person you were the first time you did it. In this case, I’m a whole decade older, and the life experiences I’ve had in the interim can’t help but alter my perspective on the piece.
All acting is about constant exploration, constant experimentation, trying things, seeing what seems to work best. In that way, it’s sort of like the themes of Frankenstein itself: Walton’s quest to discover what lies at the North Pole and his vision of a new Utopia there, Victor’s personal mission to smash beyond the boundaries of death itself and, most especially, the Creature’s tortured search to find out who he is, where he’s come from, what his place is in the world (or if he even has one). For an actor, I think each time one goes into a rehearsal or steps in front of an audience, it’s an attempt to dive ever-deeper into the secrets of the human heart and to share those secrets, whether they’re full of wonder or full of darkness, with others who are also struggling with what it means to be human.
Many commentators have noted that the Creature is a classic representation of the Other, one that resonates with many issues germane to our time, such as racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Have you found that to be something you can work with?
Oh, yeah. The Creature’s status as “Other” is definitely what gives this piece so much of its timelessness. The murderous rage the character develops is a direct result of being abandoned, disowned by his own creator, his parent, and of his treatment by a society that sees only what it perceives as his hideous outside and has little or no interest in the essential humanity he feels inside. He can only be treated as “subhuman” for so long before coming to the conclusion that there is absolutely no benefit in attempting to behave in a rational and “civilized” manner and lashing out at those who have treated him so badly. When one is continually victimized by the prevailing social order, why should they have any interest in upholding or playing by the rules of that social order? And we certainly see that played out across all the issues you’ve mentioned.
The idea of parental abandonment as one of the animating forces of the story is a rich one to explore. A few years back, in an essay in The New Republic, Ruth Franklin pointed out that Mary Shelley was pregnant at the time she wrote Frankenstein, and had already suffered the birth and death of a baby. Franklin wrote, “Could the novel – commonly understood as a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually – also be a story about pregnancy?”
For me, the most powerful element of the story – the one that really connected to the student audiences I played to when I did the show in Orlando – is that of parental responsibility, neglect and abuse. What does it mean to be a parent? What responsibilities do you have to your child, your creation? What happens if you do not fulfill those responsibilities? Does a lack of parental love and support justify revenge or attempting to seize that love, no matter what the cost? How many of the crimes committed today are crimes that develop from parental neglect or abuse? Should the Creature ultimately be held responsible for his crimes?
The issue of scientific hubris, of humans playing God, has long been central to the story’s durability, its relevance to succeeding generations of readers and/or film- and theatergoers. Your thoughts on that?
The ethical implications of scientific advancement are always timely. How will that knowledge be applied? Will the good that comes from these new discoveries outweigh the destructive or morally ambiguous (or downright evil) purposes for which those discoveries might be used? Experiments being performed in altering genetic codes in plants, in animals and in humans may produce short-term benefits, but what are the long-term implications – physical, moral and ethical – to which these processes may be put? How will our tinkering play out over the course of the next generations? What happens when we have the capability to breed human beings selectively, to completely eliminate qualities we might find “ugly” or “unpleasant”?
I shudder at the answer to those questions. A final one: How different are the characterizations of Victor and the Creature in this play from the way they appear in the many movie versions? Do you think the audience will come away with a whole new sense of them?
There have been so many versions of this story in so many media. James Whale’s film versions for Universal back in the 1930s and Boris Karloff’s magnificent characterization in those films have been most responsible for cementing an image of the story in the public’s imagination. Wonderful as those films are, they have little to do with Mary Shelley’s original intentions. There’s a slightly campy edge to them that, while delightful in context, really lets audiences off the hook, allowing them to view it all as a slightly silly, scary story without having to think about the deeper ethical and moral issues it raises. In that sense, I think audiences will find this version even scarier than they might expect – something far more personal and relatable, and therefore far more frightening, than the square-headed, neck-bolted version they’re used to.
This one’s definitely not G-rated. I’d recommend that parents with impressionable youngsters might want to leave them at home; there are elements in this version that could be really disturbing to them. That said, adult audiences can expect to discover an emotional connection to this story and these characters that I doubt they’ve previously experienced when approaching Frankenstein.
Thank you, Steven – and break a cobbled-together leg!
Directed and designed by John Sowle with Steven Patterson performing all roles, Jim Helsinger’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus will run for eight performances from October 13 to 23. Shows take place Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., with special “pay-what-you-can” performances on Thursday, October 13 (a preview) and Sunday, October 16 (a matinée). Regular tickets cost $20, $10 for patrons aged 21 and under, and can be pre-purchased at BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling (800) 838-3006. Tickets will also be on sale at the door prior to each performance on a space-available basis. The theater is located at 44 West Bridge Street in the village of Catskill. For more information, visit the theater online at http://bridgest.org.