By Robert Parks Johnson
Today is the first rehearsal of Frankenstein, a modern adaptation by Bo List in which I have been cast as The Creature. I remember my first audition, way back in 4th grade, but I don’t remember my first rehearsal. There aren’t very many memorable ones. Still, the anticipation of the ritual is so exciting.
This afternoon, I will sit with a new company of actors. Some are old friends, and some are people I’ve watched and admired for quite a while. Some are strangers to me. We are going to review the routine tasks of scheduling and policy that go with keeping any herd of artists organized, and then we will open our scripts, pick up our pencils, and set about reading together for the first time.
The script has had several productions around the country, and I was present for Nick Vannoy’s moving performance as The Creature in the world premier at the Kentucky Conservatory Theatre’s SummerFest in 2011. His work is sure to haunt me. He isn’t the only ghost who will pursue me as I try to create my own interpretation of the role of the Big Fellow.
No, not alive, not yet.
But the process of gathering pieces to stitch together has begun. I have had the script in hand for a couple weeks, and I’ve been poring over it. I’m not really doing intense analysis at this point, just trying to take it all in through a wide lens. I’ve read Mrs. Shelley’s novel. The story was born in her nightmares: the teen-aged free-thinker whose birth caused her mother’s death, and whose elopement with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley led to estrangement from her father and poverty. She wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus on a dare during the famous summer of 1816 when she and her husband were guests of the notorious Lord Byron at his home on Lake Geneva.
The novel isn’t a page turner like Bram Stoker’s action packed Dracula. It is more of a psychological portrait, told mostly in the voice of Victor Frankenstein, the ambitious scientist whose grief over his lost mother led him to seek the secret of life and reanimation. It is also a moral examination of a man who, like Prometheus, seeks to serve humankind by bringing down fire from heaven, only to find his hubris punished by the gods with an eternity of bondage and agony.
Bo List’s adaptation is faithful to this psychological, moral tone, but also draws on more theatrical parts of the Frankenstein myth that have developed since the novel was published. Consequently, I’ve been digging into some famous and not so famous films. I’m sure I’ll be gleaning insights from all of them.
In our script, The Creature (who never does get a name) learns reading and language from hours spent reading Paradise Lost, John Milton’s cosmic tale of Satan’s fall from heaven and revenge against his Creator. Digging through Paradise… is not exactly light reading, but it helps to understand how the Creature’s psyche was rebuilt after Victor’s traumatic experiments left his mind a nearly blank slate. It also sheds light in the deep longing for love and acceptance that underlies the “monster’s” desire for a companion… and the tragic consequences of Victor’s failure to provide a bride for his miserable “son.”
Soon, it will be time to put all these outside resources back on the shelf, and turn my full attention to our script and playing with my fellow actors. Till that time comes, I’ll be relishing the opportunity to absorb the ideas and stories that will be components of my own Creature. It’s a much more pleasant process than the one poor Victor had to go through. I won’t have to dig up any graves.
Robert Parks Johnson is a Lexington theatre vet, and a LiveStrong trainer at the YMCA. Bo List’s adaptation of Frankenstein premiered at SummerFest in 2011. It is scheduled for Woodford Theatre in October.
This article also appears on page 13 of the September 4, 2014 print issue of Ace.
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