[Frankenstein] (Critic's Pick)

Alex Talks and Harper Lee (Cincinnati)

Critic's Pick

The legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reverberates 200 years after its publication. The prescient tale of a scientist playing god has been reimaged to the point of saturation, but somehow [Frankenstein] by Alex Talks and Harper Lee manages to make it fresh. A loose adaptation of the novel set in a near future, it plays upon gender roles and the limits of exploration. The 60-minute production incorporates multimedia art by Golden Brown Enterprizes and original music by Eli Maiman, resulting in equal parts dystopian science fiction allegory and bittersweet love story.

In the year 2031 Dr. William Friend (Dylan Shelton) is dealing with the fallout from a plague that only targets women and has left the future in shambles. The narrative is bifurcated, moving back and forth between  Friend in a shelter as he nurses Holly (Harper Lee) back to health and flashbacks to his experiments with Amelia (Alex Talks), the early days of the plague, when he and Holly first met. Shelley’s classic story provides the framework for a new story: Friend has brought Holly, a victim of the plague, back from the dead. But his intention is not to find a cure; he hoards her like an object in a selfish cycle of trauma.

Written by women, the show tackles issues of femininity and the male gaze as Holly is reduced to a stuttering ingénue for the majority of the play. When she gets her big moment, she’s a ray of sunshine streaking through the dust-caked mirror of this desolate future. While Lee and Shelton have an engrossing chemistry, it’s truncated by breaks in the narrative that utilize a thumping soundtrack of heart monitors and life support machines and a mesmerizing strobe light effect, slowing their moments down with genuine menace.

The play is a slow burn, building on the tension of what exactly is going on outside the shelter in a provocative manner. The storytelling is very naturalistic, with Shelton offering an intriguing and riveting portrait of a tortured soul unable to deal with his demons, both internal and external. There’s a recent genre of filmmaking called “mumblegore” that blends an indie sensibility focuses on introspection and character with a horror story. That could easily be applied to [Frankenstein].

Anchored by strong performances, this play is something to be marveled at. Through nuanced and authentic dialogue, it brings the characters to life. Holly veers into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory at times, a plot device simply to help teach Friend a lesson. But Amelia, portrayed by Talks, is a fully realized, three-dimensional character who comes to life in her monologues projected onscreen. She grounds the end of the world in Monday morning mundanity, injecting real emotional honesty into the sturm und drang that occasionally threatens to overwhelm the narrative.

Sci-fi has always been a tool for teaching lessons, and [Frankenstein] does that with real heart and, ironically, a throbbing pulse.

[FRANKENSTEIN] by Alex Talks and Harper Lee will be performed 4:30 p.m. June 1, 9:30 p.m. June 2, 9 p.m. June 4 and 7:30 p.m. June 5 at Gateways to Healing (1206 Main St., Over-the-Rhine). 
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