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The Hypocrites’ Frankenstein Is…Frankensteinian

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 28, 2009 5:40PM

Photo of Matt Kahler and Jessie Fisher by Paul Metreyeon
First off, we should tell you that we’re more familiar with Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” than Mary Shelley’s original novel. Or the Boris Karloff movie. Or any other version, really. (Our apologies to the Chicagoist Literary and Film Offices if they’re ashamed of us in any way.) The point is: We fully accept that The Hypocrites’ Frankenstein may have included references that went right over our heads. That being said: Prior knowledge and research certainly enrich the audience’s experience, but they shouldn’t be required. Throughout this entire show, we couldn’t shake the feeling that we had missed something. It was a frustrating 70 minutes.

In an interview on The Hypocrites’ website, director/adaptor Sean Graney discusses the idea that his script is somewhat of a Frankenstein itself. Although it is adapted from the Mary Shelley novel, other sources were “shoved together” (his words, not ours) - Graney names Macbeth, Dr. Faustus, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, Prometheus Bound and writing by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a lot of material to reconcile. To Graney’s credit, the result is a show that does indeed feel like a Frankenstein - but like Frankenstein, it just doesn’t work right.

The story is relatively familiar. Inventor Victor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) creates a Daemon (Matt Kahler) who wreaks havoc on his life and those around him. The monster kills a “Strange Girl” (Jessie Fisher) and forces Victor to recreate her to be his wife. In the “collateral damage” category is Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz), Victor’s fiancĂ©e and sister, we think - we couldn’t figure out if “sister” was an archaic way to refer to a particularly religious woman or if she was actually his sister. Anyway - wrapped up in the creation of a bride for his Daemon, Victor neglects Elizabeth, driving her to suicide. We don’t think we’re spoiling anything by telling you that - we saw it coming within minutes of her first entrance.

All of these plot points unfold in a messy, almost arbitrary way. The emotional dial is stuck on “intense and violent,” though there are a few flashes of comedy. The whole thing feels like a fever dream below a ceiling of hanging, bloody dolls (that part’s real, thanks to Set Designer Tom Burch) and we can absolutely see why that might be what Graney was going for - but we didn’t enjoy it.

Adding to our general confusion, the actors and audience share the stage, as the theater’s permanent seats have been blocked off by a screen on which the 1931 movie is projected. There are benches and other furniture to sit or stand on, but getting comfortable is not an option. Actors point to the area of the stage to which they’re headed, indicating that anyone in the way best move, fast. We loved this conceit in Graney’s production of Edward II at Chicago Shakespeare, but it was too distracting in this piece. We happened to be in very close proximity to the few instances of extreme violence - well-choreographed by Matt Hawkins - so it’s no surprise that those moments worked best for us. Constantly trying to gain a better vantage point was futile, as the action kept moving around the space. Concerned with logistics, we found the intimate setting made it harder to connect with the piece.

We had a few minutes of clarity here and there - the scene between Kahler and Fisher in which he explains the nature of her undead existence stuck out in our minds as noteworthy. However - and we hate to say this, both because we wanted to like the show and because it’s an obvious and terrible pun - this production is a prime example of a whole that is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Frankenstein, through November 1. The Hypocrites at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Tickets $20-$25 (MCA members $16-$20, students $10), 312-397-4010.