Discombobulated

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frankestein-hypocrites-mca.jpgAs avid readers of this blog know, I have pretty definitive ideas on what I like when it comes to theater (challenging material, creative re-envisionings) and on what I don’t (inanity, inauthenticity, audience pandering).  Sean Graney and The Hypocrites are definitely often in the “like” column, and sometimes even in the “very much liked” one; I strongly feel that they have an abundance of collective creative genius which is not often surpassed in the city’s storefront theater scene. Although I admired elements of Graney’s new adaptation of Frankenstein, the first time the Hypocrites, a truly edgy storefront theater group was performing at MCA Stage, a truly edgy performance space and presenting entity (why did it take so long?), I left the show discombobulated, the second straight Hypocrites production (after Oedipus) that I didn’t really buy into. 

I’ve seen all of Sean Graney’s promenade productions from the dazzling 4.48 Psychoses onwards:  the hypnotic but uneven Miss Julie, the brilliant Edward II (one of my top theatrical experiences of 2008), the disconnected Oedipus. So I’m an unabashed fan of the director and of the concept.  However, after this problematic Frankenstein, this exhausted audience member may just need to take a break from it all.  I think both Hedy Weiss and Chris Jones in their reviews have touched on one of the intrinsic problems of this play as staged:  the MCA Stage is either just too huge (despite the number of people promenading on Friday night, you could still run wind sprints in the edges of that space) or is not configured effectively for a promenade production which requires, first and foremost, an intimate, visceral audience experience.  The Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs theater provided a terrific squeezed-in-a-sardine-can quality to Edward II; the Chopin Theater’s basement was effectively divided to allow rooms to unfold into other rooms creating a rabbit-hole unexpectedness to Miss Julie.  At the MCA Stage, scenes are played out in opposite points of the expansive space, such that unless you jostled yourself into the direct perimeter of the actors (and honey, I don’t aggressively jostle unless it’s Hugh Jackman signing autographs!), you’re standing behind people taller than you (a definite issue for this Asian guy) or you’re too far away to see or hear clearly what’s going on in the scene.

And there’s a lot going on in Frankenstein, consistent with Graney’s highly-caffeinated, editorial-red-pencil-needing past visions.  And that’s the graver disappointment.  There’s the 1931 Boris Karloff movie playing on a giant screen in the background – I can’t tell if Graney intended the live performance to be in sync with the film’s scene being played out (in some instances such as Elizabeth’s meeting with the monster, it is) or the film is functioning as some form of visual “white noise” to the live action.  And if it does, why?  There’s a lot of talk about creation and creators, about being alive and living purely, about man trying to be God, consistent with the themes of the film and Mary Shelley’s book, but they all seem disconnected and obtuse to me.  I’m not sure if it is because of the lack of close proximity to the performance, the actors’ performances themselves (which, other than Jessie Fisher’s animated take on an underaged prostitute, feel very uninhabited), or the absence of a clearly-articulated narrative throughline in the script. There are cabaret-style musical numbers (I like the tongue-in-cheek nature of having the monster break out into song) and the usual design pastiche that the Hypocrites are known for (bloody dolls hanging from the ceiling, Elizabeth in period costumes while Victor looks like, uhmm, the Village People; cell phones; a rocking bed with blood-stained sheets; a seesaw; torn out pages from a book-the Bible, perhaps?-covering the entire back wall of the MCA stage; a wedding train that becomes a gauzy curtain dividing the room, most of it impressive and arresting thanks to designer Tom Burch, but not making any obvious sense). 

This Frankenstein throws out a lot at the audience, and in the past Graney/Hypocrites productions you get an epiphany at some point during the performance, and some, if not most of it, added up.  Frankenstein, three days after I saw it, still feels like a collection of visual and aural clues, not adding up to anything at all.  I’m not sure if that is what Graney is intentionally doing with this blurry-eyed piece (and I have a sinking feeling it may be, based on his video interview that’s posted on the Hypocrites website), but I think that’s a cop-out.  It’s easy to string together stuff and call them “creative expression”, what is more difficult is to put disparate, unrelated elements and create a cohesive, transformed whole.  Frankenstein, the monster, as depicted in Mary Shelley’s novel and as heartbreakingly played by Boris Karloff in the movie is ultimately more unique individual than sewn-together patchwork; I wished folks remembered this important point as the piece was being conceptualized.

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