Theater

Rorschach's 'Monster': More Guts Than Gory

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

Something's a little off in Rorschach Theatre's production of "Monster." And for the most part, that's a good thing.

The invigorating source of disturbance is the big guy who's stitched together from exhumed arms, ears and kidneys. As played by the young, expressive actor Robert Rector, this creature out of our collective anxieties emits the requisite scent of the grave -- what you might call eau de crypt.

Other things about his performance chill the blood in "Monster," Neal Bell's 2002 adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein": namely, the queasy sense of entitlement he conveys. Whether it is a return to the tranquillity of oblivion or the arms of another monster, this is one reanimated hulk who wants and wants and wants. And too bad for anyone in his path who doesn't recognize that he's a ghoul with needs.

Embodied in such macabre fashion, vulnerability seems unsettling and pitiful. It is the most interesting aspect of Bell's adaptation, and our fascination with the monster's frailties is what sustains the staging when the going gets a bit rough -- a roughness owing in large measure to a cast that is not uniformly up to the script's demands.

This is the third incarnation of "Frankenstein" to materialize on a local stage in the past two months (Synetic and Round House having served up, respectively, an original dance-play version and a one-man adaptation of the story told from the creature's point of view). Shelley's Gothic tale is of a man of science who seeks to cheat death by defying God and nature. Is it a stretch to suggest that the man-made ills of our time have made arrogance a particularly resonant theme these days? Or is it that the theaters are simply hoping we're in a welcoming mood for the frights in a familiar, ripping yarn?

Synetic's handsome if disappointingly one-dimensional production stressed the moral morass of the novel. Bell's adaptation is not plagued with a similar stiffness. It is a more supple, psychological treatment of the story, down to the intimations of a physical attraction between Victor Frankenstein (Jeremy Goren) and lifelong friend Henry Clerval (Jon Reynolds). And anyway, what modernist reinterpretation is complete without hints of homoeroticism?

Bell's text views Victor's experiment as the outgrowth of a morbid curiosity with death and blood and guts; when cousin Elizabeth (Lily Balsen) menstruates for the first time, a teenage Victor is creepily transfixed. "You smell alive," he tells her. The ensuing details, however, don't fixate on the usual gory interludes. Our first glimpse of the creature comes after Victor drops him, cloaked in a heavy shroud, in the corner of his basement, then harnesses bolts of lightning to shock him into consciousness.

"Monster" focuses much of its narrative energy on the question of personal responsibility. After Victor expresses disgust at what he's created, he tries to cover up his spectacular folly by abandoning the creature in the woods. What he does not count on is that the flesh he's sparked to life contains feelings, mostly angry ones, and that the revenge the creature formulates will result in the deaths of many whom Victor loves.

For the stakes to be felt intensively, the actor playing Victor must be a compelling responder to the appalling events. Goren's Victor, alas, is far too blank. When he's given news of the slaughter of Henry, he barely bats an eye: There's no sense of revulsion or surprise. It's as if Victor were more immune to the terrors in the story than even a casual spectator.

Director Randy Baker does not elicit much urgency from the supporting actors, several of whom react to the hideous murders occurring around them as if they were reports of fender-benders. Certainly, there's a line not to be crossed -- from horror over to camp. But what is to be made of a character who, unjustly sent to the gallows, acts like it's a trip to the mall? An exception to this blase approach is Balsen, whose high-strung Elizabeth reveals an understanding for the tension, the sense of worse to come, that must build as the rampage proceeds.

The physical world of the play is conjured efficiently by set designer Debra Kim Sivigny, who with a few yards of fabric and a pile of wooden planks manages to suggest an icy ocean or remote mountainside. And David C. Ghatan's lighting scheme casts forbidding shadows over the bleak proceedings.

The moments that work best all seem to be ones in which Rector's creature is satisfying one need or another. With his red-rimmed eyes and mop of blond hair, the actor suggests a sinister variation on Rocky, of "Rocky Horror Show" stage fame. The artificial man is not only the production's most magnetic, but also its most authentic.

Monster, by Neal Bell. Directed by Randy Baker. Costumes, Erin Nugent; sound, William Burns. With Paul McLane, Jason Linkins, Nicola Daval, Tiernan Madorno. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 26 at Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com/rorschach .


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