From the moment the lights come up on the Four Larks production of “Frankenstein” to reveal a genteel 19th-century sea captain, singing a period chamber song while accompanied by live acoustic musicians in front of a stark white backdrop, it’s clear you are in for something unexpected.
One might argue that the LA-based performance troupe has already made a name for itself on the basis of delivering the unexpected, through its immersive, experiential productions that exist “at the intersection of theatre, music, visual art and dance” (as their online self-description puts it), and that anyone seeing their work should therefore expect, well, the unexpected.
Even so, thanks to the cultural saturation that has made the story of Frankenstein and his misbegotten creation familiar to almost every member of modern American civilization over the age of three, an audience member walking into the Lovelace Studio Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, where Four Larks has mounted their latest effort for a now-extended run through March 7, will unavoidably be carrying their own well-encoded assumptions about the tale – and they likely won’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the 1818 novel with which Mary Shelley introduced it to the world.
Consequently, many members of the crowd probably won’t know, or won’t remember, that Shelley’s horror classic begins and ends in the frozen Arctic wasteland, with a naval officer on a mission to reach the North Pole (a situation rendered perfectly and instantaneously by the arresting opening tableau), or that the title character relates his sad history as a cautionary tale against the dangers of man’s insatiable desire to bend the universe to his own will.
Four Larks, however, has not forgotten. In this ingenious cabinet-of-curiosities-style production, troupe founders Mat Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, along with librettist Jesse Rasmussen, strip away the generations’ worth of cultural baggage that has been piled atop Shelley’s original, allowing it to serve as both their inspiration and their road map for a densely-packed unwinding of the narrative that takes us from its pre-Victorian setting up to the precipice of our own modern future within the space of 70 minutes.
Utilizing a breathtakingly talented ensemble of twelve performers (who rarely leave the stage), the multi-media performance reclaims the author’s voice in her name by making her a central presence onstage; it is Mary Shelley herself who speaks the words as her literary stand-in enacts the story of his own act of creation, serving as a constant reminder that this quintessential tale of terror came from the imagination of a woman – a fact that has particular resonance in a world in which the patriarchal urge to dominate and control has led us to the brink of self-destruction.
Underscoring the contemporary import of that radical motif – as well as the prescience of Shelley’s not-very-subtle warning about the dangers of unchecked technological advancement – is a near-hypnotic progression of sights, sounds, and ideas that incorporates speaking, singing, movement, sound, lights, projections, and environmental effects to connect the dots between Frankenstein’s transgressive creation – or rather, the reckless hubris it represents – and a modern world living in the ominous shadow of nuclear destruction, artificial intelligence, and climate change.
Along the way, the literal aspects of the story sometimes get lost within the conceptual flourishes – especially for those unfamiliar with the original text – but in this envisioning, which Four Larks actor Lukas Papenfusscline, calls a “collaboration” with Shelley herself, that is part of the point. Though the production has clung tightly to the novel in terms of remaining faithful to its plot, it revels in translating its ideas into a stylized, contemporary vision that clearly communicates them to an audience and allowing them to hit us in a more direct and visceral way.
Still, many of the show’s highlights are masterful renditions of segments from the book. The creature’s birth, brought to life through the acrobatic contortions of actor Max Baumgarten, is a master class of physical performance that evokes the loneliness, pain and transgression of the experience while dazzling us with an unforgettable display of sheer grace and prowess. Similarly, the lengthy episode depicting the creature’s secret spying on the life of a human family through the windows of their cabin in the woods is executed with a crystalline simplicity that both conveys its essence and illuminates its profound observations about humanity. Finally, in an electrified (and electrifying) climactic flourish, the story’s last act of creation is terrifyingly rendered in a jaw-dropping combination of performance, stagecraft and technology that unites past and present in a spectral vision conveying the all-encompassing dread of a future mankind has created in its own image.
It may all sound a bit overwhelming, and that is exactly what was intended, not just by Four Larks but by Mary Shelley herself; but although there is no effort to soften the “shock and awe,” it is countered by the precision with which this intricately choreographed theatrical exercise is executed.
As Papenfusscline put it in an interview with the Blade ahead of the show’s opening, “It’s like a Swiss watch with a million little parts, some of it is the music, design, some of it is the acting, and we’re creating this intricate work of art that as a performer is endlessly rewarding. I’ve just had a blast.”
Judging by the sleeper success this world-class production has enjoyed in its world-premiere run at the Wallis, audiences are having a blast, too.