We’re all familiar with the notorious monsters of new and old: Count Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Krueger and Voorhees, etc. Though few fiends match the infamy of the deranged Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Creation. For almost two centuries creatives of have reinterpreted the duo into varying representations of morality and fear, but at the heart of all of these stories is Victor in search of new life and his Creation forever denied the comforts of fellowship and humanity. The Doctor and Creation have been brought to life on page, screen, stage, canvas, and more; it’s only natural for a tale about mankind’s hubris and ingenuity to invoke the urge to create. But has there been a most successful reinterpretation? These characters have taken on multiple lives sometimes only loosely based on Mary Shelley’s original creations. Perhaps, when considering the breadth of artistic mediums available, it is most appropriate thematically to recreate Frankenstein using puppets. After all, was it not Dr. Frankenstein’s goal to emulate human life in a form reminiscent of humanity yet a new entity of its own?
Created by the Trouble Puppet Theater Company’s artistic director, Connor Hopkins, Frankenstein is a retelling of Shelley’s original story, incorporating aspects from stage, screen, and literary interpretations of the past to form a new Creation of their very own. And, as the company’s name suggests, almost every character is reimagined as a puppet.
As the creative force behind this production, Hopkins is responsible for Frankenstein’s script. It is an amalgamation of its predecessors, most notably the original literary source and the Universal Pictures films starring Boris Karloff. Much like Victor’s Creation, the script, once sewn together from previous works, has an identity of its own. Steampunk flair is added to Victor’s science as they are brought from their asylum in Romania to the Reign of Terror in Paris. There is an emphasis on comedy throughout the production which often fell flat, yet Hopkins knows when it’s time to back away from the comedy to allow a horrifying or touching moment play out. And thankfully Hopkins only made the literally stated comparison to the creation of life to controlling puppets once, a thematic element that could have easily been overstated by a lesser author.
The design quality of the production was mostly decent. Frankenstein is accompanied by a large screen upstage which projects backdrops, scene titles, and surreal imagery to emphasize the mad science behind Victor’s experiments. Most notably the play pauses to project a character’s backstory via shadow puppetry which, while impressive and effective, broke the narrative flow for a few moments. Stephen Pruitt’s lighting design successfully captured the gothic-science tone of the production allowing the performers to catch the light on their puppets efficiently, and contributing to the tone of the more bizarre scenes with appropriately bizarre lighting effects. The production was also accompanied, mostly during scene changes, by music composed by Justin Sherburn, whose work exhibited both a great understanding for mood/theme and the range of styles in which he could create melodies. However, there were a few sloppy sound fades and cuts that left noticeable gaps in audio.
I apologize that I cannot state which actor voiced each character, but they are listed as one body of performers in the program without character designations. That being said the vocal talent behind the puppets was varied. Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein were strong in projecting refined authority over their experiments and creations. Other characters, such as the Creation, Albrecht, and Fritz were serviceable but not necessarily strong. The only voice that truly bothered me was that of Dr. Pretorius. There were a handful of characters who were noticeably voiced by members of the opposite gender, and they mostly worked, but the woman who voiced Pretorius sounded nothing like the character and puppet they were controlling. They simply didn’t match. It’s a shame because Dr. Pretorius had some of the better scenes in the play, but I couldn’t ignore his/her discordant voice.
But this is a puppet theater production, so let’s talk about the core of Trouble Puppet’s Frankenstein, the puppets. Designed by Hopkins and constructed by Marc Smith, most of the puppets are a variation on traditional rod puppets, requiring one performer to control an arm and the head while a second performer controls the other arm and supports the character’s torso. A pale blue hue colors the skin of the human characters, possibly to pay homage to early stage productions which depicted the Creation with pale blue skin wearing a pale blue robe. In regards to movement the puppets and their performers were impressive. The synchronization between the performers who control a single puppet is no less than skillful. However, not every movement was dexterous; almost all of the puppets lacked leg movements which often led to a character’s legs dragging underneath them as they “walked” (Victor himself being the guiltiest of this act). Even so, many puppets designs, such as Elizabeth’s, involved long clothing that created the illusion of walking beneath their dresses, coats, and aprons. While many of the puppets felt static on their own, they truly came to life, much to my surprise, when interacting with one another. Characters hugging, fighting, and working together brought about lifelike reactions from them that received genuine vocal responses of empathy and shock from the audience. Yes, Frankenstein made me legitimately empathetic for a puppet version of Dr. Pretorius.
The cast also includes variations on their typical rod puppet mold, smaller marionettes acting as puppets within this puppet-verse, and a delightful head in a jar puppet accompanied by subtle lighting and sound effects. But if you’re like me you’ll spend much of the play wondering how the Creation has been crafted into a puppet. I won’t spoil the design for you though I will say that it was a unique spin on his traditional appearance by taking influence from other classic movie monsters, imposing in aesthetic and size in comparison to the other characters, and required three people to move him properly.
Frankenstein is by no means flawless. The script could use polishing, a few tech issues could be tweaked, and some of the characters could have had better voice actors. But as a whole the production is an utterly unique piece of theatre and a novel addition to the tradition of retelling Shelley’s classic tale. It’s a charming piece of seasonally appropriate theatre to usher in Halloween weekend. Much like the Creation itself Frankenstein is variable in its image, adaptable to new generations and mediums while still maintaining the grim sense of mortality present in each reiteration. If you are a fan of gothic horror and can suspend your disbelief to ignore the black-clad performers controlling the cast of puppets then you will find a delightfully intriguing experience to be had with Frankenstein.
Trouble Puppet Theater Company’s Frankenstein continues playing at the Salvage Vanguard Theater every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm until November 22nd, with a special performance at 7pm on November 13th featuring an ASL interpreter