Dallas is being haunted – by a couple of very old frights. One of them’s been given a nasty new jolt. The other’s just cluttered up with some outfits that don’t really suit it.
Dallas theater companies have staged the two great modern myths invented by 19th-century gothic authors. The production of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ that recently closed at Theatre Three was Goth-y gothic – a mildly kinky Victorian dress-up with a few complications that lent the familiar tale some different but not-exactly-drop-your-tea-cup surprises. The ‘Frankenstein’ that just opened at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, on the other hand – a co-production of the Dallas Theater Center and SMU – offers galvanizing gothic. It’s all harrowing shadows and deafening electro-shock, with a titanic performance by Kim Fischer (above) as the abused Creature who stalks his creator through darkness, rain and blood. That is the traditional gift for a novel’s 200th birthday, isn’t it? Fresh blood?
Gothic literature has typically reheated and spiced up leftovers from the past. It’s no accident the gothic more or less began with the novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto.’ It was 1764, and the Industrial Revolution was just gearing up. Artifacts of Old World aristocracy and medieval Catholicism were crumbling away in the face of giant economic, social and technological rifts. But partly as a result of their increasing obsolescence and even disappearance, those relics were gaining a sexy, new aura. They had the value of the precious antique: They represented loss and death, the old ways and the otherworldly. We’re talking about monks and graveyards, castles and monasteries, virtuous maidens imperiled by brooding aristocrats. Think of ‘Dracula,’ and you’ve pretty much got the gothic wrapped up in a coffin, a crucifix and an opera cape.
But Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus ‘ (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1868) are distinctly modern, regardless of the garlands of gloom they borrowed to cheer up their decor. ‘Frankenstein’ – adapted to the stage by Nick Dear and thunderously directed by Joel Ferrell – is the story of a man inventing another man, indeed, a superman, and then abandoning him to his fate. What could be more modern? It’s ‘Westworld.’ It’s the Garden of Eden without God.
Shelley was, in fact, criticized for her novel’s godlessness: The Creature may quote Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ but when did this new Adam ever acquire a divinely created soul? All it took for medical student Victor Frankenstein to bring him to life were some stolen body parts and the right voltage. That’s one reason Shelley’s later revisions backed away from her revolutionary original, inserting moralizing sentiments about how ‘scientists shouldn’t play God.’ It’s the same conservative fear of technology and modernity that often surges through monster movies, waving torches and pitchforks. Frankenstein is defying the period’s limitations on science, nature and morality (what limitation is greater than death?). But though the arrogant student may not win many popularity contests, he is headed down the same road that leads to today’s heart transplants, reconstructive surgery and prosthetic limbs. And, oh yes, to our worries about artificial intelligence and genetic modification.
Meanwhile, in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ – in the adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, directed by Christie Vela at Theatre Three – a doctor finds inside himself hidden impulses so contrary to his own enlightened persona they might as well be a separate creature. Which he intends to chemically distill and extract. But he ends up unleashing it instead – and enjoying it. And down that particular road to hell lie Freudian therapy, dissociative identity disorder, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. And yes, lobotomies and brain implants.
Consequently, both ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Jekyll’ split off from the traditional gothic: They involve medical advances intended to improve humanity, however badly those supposed advances turn out. That’s a far cry from Edgar Allan Poe spooking readers over being buried alive in a dusty wine cellar. ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Jekyll’ point to the future and its possible transformations of human life rather than to the cobwebbed past. These stories are the moment when gothic horror leaps into science fiction – and crashes on us.
Spoiler alert: Despite their good intentions, despite all the newfangled devices and colorful serums, neither doctor takes home a Nobel Prize. But what also unites ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Jekyll’ – beyond their mad scientists – is the unbreakable bond (and unending struggle) between the supposed hero and the supposed monster.
When Danny Boyle directed the world premiere of Nick Dear’s ‘Frankenstein’ at London’s National Theatre in 2011, his play boasted a casting coup by having its two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternate in the lead roles of the Creature and Victor. (On opening night at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, playwright Dear was present and said this switcheroo was director Boyle’s idea. He and Boyle had worked together for years shaping the script, but only a director or producer – no mere playwright – could cause this alignment of stars.) Boyle’s production was brilliantly theatrical and justly popular. It has been one of the biggest hits of National Theatre Live’s telecasts for years now, and the next time it re-runs at the Angelika Film Center or the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, mark your calendar.
Double-casting like this is a classic marketing gimmick that can feed off actorly self-indulgence. But twinning the actors and their roles embodied Shelley’s unsettled attitudes toward Victor and his Creature. Despite her novel’s power and undeniable influence, Shelley stumbles around a lot as a novice storyteller, not unlike her Creature. But all those multiple narrators writing letters to each other eventually lead to Victor recounting his struggles to Robert Walton, the polar explorer who found him lost on the Arctic ice. And that account leads Victor to relate the time when the Creature narrated his own story to him.
In other words – to paraphrase Jill Lepore from a recent issue of ‘The New Yorker’ – the Creature’s story is nestled inside Victor’s, like an infant inside its mother. He’s not fully ‘born’ or fully human until he can turn autobiographical and tell his own story.
The young scientist and his creation are both unreliable narrators, to be sure, but they are also inseparable, at times both compromised and sympathetic. Critic Lawrence Lipking in 1996 argued that this moral complexity is a chief reason ‘Frankenstein’ has spawned so many differing interpretations that don’t necessarily cancel each other. There have been feminist ones (Victor ‘births’ a man because he wants to take on a woman’s power, and the Creature’s violent birth recalls Mary Shelley’s own harrowing difficulties with pregnancies and infant death) and racialist ones (the Creature is described as having yellowish skin, distinctly non-European features and is even called a slave) .
Creator and Creature, Lipking argues, are on a moral seesaw throughout the novel, thanks in part to those different narrators, and it’s the loss of this ambivalence that flaws Dear’s adaptation, making it teeter severely to one side. At first, Dear didn’t want to eliminate Walton and the other narrators but finally killed them off to simplify the storyline. He did keep the Creature’s voice, though. In most movie incarnations, particularly the iconic 1931 Boris Karloff film, the Creature only grunts or snarls. He’s not allowed to speak – as he does in the novel. (One could argue – as Karloff did and subsequent critics have – that Karloff’s tremendous performance of mute anguish actually made the monster more pitiable than any eloquent plea.)
To offset this cinematic silence from the Creature, Dear definitely lets him have his say here. But this leads to a simplistic turning-of-the-moral-tables. Dear’s adaptation indicts Frankenstein, over and over. From the ear-splitting, electrocution-crucifixion that opens Ferrell’s production at the Kalita, we see the Creature as a tortured and abandoned child. Meanwhile, Victor, that genius, is off being obsessed and aloof, the ultimate bad dad. We’re back, once again, with Hollywood’s mad scientist, distinctly unconcerned about the human fallout from his quest for knowledge.
“Who is the real monster?” asks the DTC’s marketing campaign. It’s not even a question here. It’s good ol’ Vic. But to quote Lipking again (from ‘Frankenstein, The True Story’): “Which of us, in Frankenstein’s position, would not invite the Creature home, give him a good hot meal, plug him into ‘Sesame Street,’ enter him in the Special Olympics, fix him up with a mate and tell him how much we love him? Surely such treatment would result not only in a better Creature but a happier ending for everyone … [But this would mostly just permit decent-minded, modern audiences a warm feeling of moral superiority over Victor.] It does not have much to do with the novel that Mary Shelley wrote. For ‘Frankenstein’ does not let its readers feel good. It presents them with genuine, insoluble problems, not with any easy way out.”
To take one such insoluble problem: Should Victor create the mate the lonely Creature longs for – out of human sympathy (and, yes, his own insatiable ego) but also to make up for his abandonment of the poor outcast? Or should Victor destroy his female work-in-progress because this same Creature is a multiple murderer?
With Alex Organ’s absolutely chilly performance as Victor and with Fischer as a half-naked, half-starving man-child crying out for justice and companionship, it’s pretty hard not to feel some radical empathy for the brutalized Other. But read Shelley’s original scene in her novel. Victor’s dreams of besting God himself have ended with a “demon” at the window whose grin expresses “the utmost extent of malice and treachery.” In which case, we may feel a little more hesitant about giving such a Creature the chance to replicate himself. True, as a species, we ourselves have been massively murderous ever since we climbed down from the trees. Who are we to judge the poor wretch? But why then would we want to unleash a super-predator on ourselves, a malevolent upgrade whose savagery is our own programming writ large?
Indeed, critics and scholars used to argue the Creature is malevolent precisely because Shelley was demonstrating Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas of the social development of human nature. He’s not born immoral; we humans make him that way through our misbegotten social, political, educational and domestic brutalities: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of [God],” writes Rousseau, “everything degenerates in the hands of man.”
There you have it then. Victor (and the other people who treat the Creature cruelly) are the real monsters here. But doesn’t Victor himself have a just cause for revenge? He primarily wants to kill the Creature for murdering Frankenstein’s innocent brother – who was killed for very little reason.
So it seems true justice is one of the ‘genuine, insoluble problems’ the novel mucks around in. Not surprisingly, later scholars began to slide the other way: ‘Frankenstein’ may not be Mary’s demonstration of Rousseau and her husband Percy Shelley’s ideas on atheism, science and the innate goodness of humankind. It’s her savage critique of them. Her novel is, in its own way, a Frankensteinian thought experiment: Let’s see just how well my hubbie’s ideas play out when we strap flesh and blood to them and run some electric current through. What’s more, the social radicalism of Shelley’s own father, William Godwin, identified itself with scientific rationalism. So – just how strongly did Mary dislike her Dad – for his second marriage and for disliking her relationship with Percy? A withdrawn father with a dead wife – sounds like both Godwin and Frankenstein. Whatever results Mary may have intended, her story and its fearsome moral implications have lurched ever onwards, taking on a life of their own.
I must confess these thoughts about the lopsided (in)justice of Dear’s adaptation didn’t occur until I saw Ferrell’s production at the Kalita. That’s partly because, in watching the National Theatre production twice, seeing Cumberbatch and Miller flip roles, one’s sympathies and attention tended to switch back and forth and tumble together, as they do in the novel. But at the Theater Center, we are on the side of the persecuted monster all the way. After his screaming zap into life, Fischer’s creature is child-like, playing happily, banging away on an empty bucket. And his subsequent decline into an unstoppable avenger is understandable; Victor, in contrast, is all head and no heart from the very beginning. How many times can a man put off marrying his fiancé because he needs to attend to his little hobby-experiment in the attic?
Something else the DTC production underscores more than the NTL production: the adaptation’s homoeroticism. For decades, feminist critics have noted that women don’t fare particularly well in Mary’s novel. Mostly, they’re either dead or soon-to-be dead. They’re martyrs to masculine ambitions. One could even argue the Creature sees his own future mate like a man ordering the ultimate sex doll: He’s just putting in a request with the Frankenstein factory.
But while the victimization of the feminine (even its near-absence) ramps up the egocentric, masculine nature of Victor and his experiment, it’s everyone’s reactions to the Creature, male or female, that are so telling here. A single glimpse and people recoil in disgust and hatred. All except for Victor. Onstage, he extols his Creature as magnificent, even glorious – long after Shelley’s novel has Victor jumping away in fright. The medical student may just be thrilled at first that his experiment has surpassed expectations. But the lean, muscular Fischer remains barely clothed throughout, wearing only a breechcloth and a long overcoat, and Organ rhapsodizes about his physical, near-naked presence. He does this even as the Creature’s sutured scalp and greasy hair make him look as though Victor has gone trolling for some seriously roughed-up rough trade.
To top it all, Frankenstein decides not to kill the Creature – while standing over the body of his own, freshly strangled wife (played by the easy and warm Jolly Abraham). Soon, when the two men pursue each other across the Arctic ice, their relationship definitely has moved on from parent-and-child, scientist-and-specimen, artist-and-artwork, celebrity-and-stalker or whatever it was to begin with and has become something sexual and extreme and broken. It’s like the world’s worst gay divorce. On a badly planned, cross-country ski vacation.
Having said all that – yes, it’s a lot, there’s only 200 years of interpretations and films to get through – it must be said the DTC’s ‘Frankenstein’ is probably Ferrell’s starkest, most dramatically forceful effort since ‘Cabaret.’ Amelia Bransky’s dark but swirling set embellished by David Bengali’s flashing projections help to make this is one of the more sophisticated and highly dramatic-with-a-capital-D uses of the Kalita.
It takes a degree of chutzpah to follow Danny Boyle’s strobe-lit box of wonders at the National – considering that company’s bountiful rehearsal time and resources (real fire! real rain! naked Benedict Cumberbatch!). Inevitably, perhaps, Ferrell starts to over-compensate. He feels the repeated need to overwhelm us. The show keeps shouting, This is Hideous! This is Terrifying! — via the blinding lights by Tyler Micoleau and the deafening sound design by Ryan Rumery.
Beating an audience over the head like this gets predictable. After awhile, we just count our bruises. To end the production, you know Ferrell will whip up a final, full-stop, symphonic crash. Yet Shelley’s novel actually finishes on a hushed, open-ended note. Remarkably, it seems to anticipate Roy Blatty’s famous, touching farewell soliloquy in ‘Bladerunner.’ But then, that shouldn’t surprise: Replicants are the sci-fi children of Shelley’s man-made man, right down to Blatty stalking and killing his father-creator, Eldon Tyrell.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Blatty says, drenched by a downpour. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” He echoes the Creature’s own prediction – spoken to Walton onboard ship – that he’ll die soon “and these burning miseries will be extinct. … my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds … Farewell.’ He sprung from the cabin-window [and] was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.”
A novel about the spark of re-birth, humans cheating death with a new kind of creation, ends in drifting and diffusion, the cold and the wet, an inevitable return to death, emptiness and the elements. The DTC production would be even more moving, more ominous, if it ended with only shadows and the sound of wind filling the theater.
Nick Dear simplified ‘Frankenstein’ to focus on the battle between creation and creator; Jeffrey Hatcher, in contrast, has fancied up ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ and at Theatre Three, director Christie Vela obliges. This particular corner of Victorian London is all lit up in lurid red like an Amsterdam brothel on a Friday night payday (lighting design by Aaron Johansen).
Stevenson’s novella is a moral allegory about our divided human nature and our unacknowledged drives as much as it is a spooky story about a monster on a rampage. But Hatcher has divvied up the central split personality, so that the vicious Mr. Hyde is now played by four different actors. A pity no one thought to play ‘Can You See The Real Me?’ from The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ – if just to wink at the idea of schizophrenia squared.
A four-sided Hyde lets us jump into Jungian archetypes or other mythic interpretations – even the way we hide behind online aliases and digital avatars today – but it’s worth remembering that Mr. Hyde doesn’t actually exist in Stevenson’s original story. Not as any kind of separate being, that is, and certainly not as a tag team. He is simply Dr. Jekyll on a really wicked bender, he’s the evil inside Jekyll concentrated and boosted but still just Jekyll. With four different incarnations of Hyde running around, that fact gets watered down. Not more complicated or more interesting, more like forgotten. When Cameron Cobb or Kia Nicole Boyer is playing Hyde, for instance, he doesn’t look all that “repulsive” or “abominable,” as he’s described.
In 1868, Stevenson didn’t have the psychiatric tools to explain Jekyll’s compulsive need to create an alter ego that runs brutally amok. But he sensed a bifurcation in England. And probably himself. He was Scottish, after all, so he felt a different relationship to Victorian high ideals of civilizing progress, propriety, Christianity and imperial power. After all, his most famous novel, ‘Treasure Island,’ is about pirates who mutiny against their captain – with a shrewd, one-legged outlaw who plays good or evil as the situation warrants. In fact, when a real-life case of ‘multiple personality disorder’ was suggested to Stevenson as an interpretation of Jekyll, he rejected it. That was too easy, too individual an explanation for this evil.
The lack of any pat, inner motive for Jekyll’s actions only makes ‘The Strange Case’ more applicable to Stevenson’s general time and place. Or our own. Stevenson was a far more assured storyteller than Shelley, if not as visionary. His tale has a calm, clear and unassertive manner. For one thing, Stevenson doesn’t employ Shelley’s complicated multiple narrators: The Strange Case’ is told from the point of view of Jekyll’s good friend and unruffled lawyer, Gabriel Utterson (the kind of fellow who admonishes others with “tut, tut”). This entire approach of the sensible chap encountering something incomprehensible is important, especially its tone. Victorian restraint is a basic element that Hatcher’s adaptation lacks – at least in Vela’s hands. Stevenson’s prose alone conveys an entire world of stability and accepted behavior, a world that gets turned inside-out when Utterson discovers what ugliness his friend has done – indeed, by implication, what any of us, even the best of us, is capable of doing in private.
Dr. Henry Jekyll embodies, if not the height of honor and reason, then certainly the kind of upstanding Englishman once hailed as a “true gentleman,” someone whose name is followed by “M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D. and F.R.S.” (doctor of medicine, doctor of civil law, doctor of laws and Fellow of the Royal Society). If he weren’t so handsome and tall, as Stevenson describes him, Jekyll would practically sag under all the respectability and distinction those initials confer.
We need this kind of impeccable Jekyll because Hyde is a rebuke to everything he represents: He’s unreasoning, cruel, impulsive, grasping, uncaring, violent. He’s the underside of the Empire and its upper-class masters. He’s little more than raw, selfish force. In effect – as Jekyll finds to his shock – the two men need each other to function, to hold themselves together. There is no monster and good guy – there is only the one being, the individual English gentleman, honorable and horrible, virtuous and vicious.
But when it comes to adapting all this to the stage, Stevenson’s original story unfortunately leaves Hyde’s crimes essentially unmotivated. They’re almost random. He’s just, you know, bad. A junkie looking to afford a fix. He’ll attack anyone. At any time. But such blank malignancy doesn’t provide much dramatic depth or character interest. So Hatcher gives Jekyll, played by Michael Federico, a reason to murder Sir Danvers Carew. Hatcher updates Jekyll as yet another one of our twitchy, forensic geniuses, an Asperger-y compulsive like Dr. House or Monk or the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. He can solve mysteries with a single, knowledgeable glance. During a homicide dissection in an operating theater, Jekyll can’t help but make Carew look like a fool and a perv, and Carew (Robert Gemaehlich) responds with huffing threats of dismissal and exposure.
So it’s a matter of self-defense. And thus, farewell, Carew.
In a program note, Federico declares the obsessive Jekyll “kind of insane.” But if Jekyll starts utterly manic and neurotic, then turning into Hyde really isn’t that much of a deep dive into evil, is it? And Stevenson’s moral allegory becomes not all that scary, either, because it’s no longer so applicable to the rest of us. We all have our bad habits that are tough to stop but how many of us normal, sane, healthy, proper folks in the seats are likely, after a drink or three, to wander the streets and bludgeon little girls? Unfortunately for Hatcher’s approach, Jekyll becomes not a model of what’s innate – as a possibility – in all of us. Instead, he’s an intense neurotic deteriorating into bipolar disorder then into violent psychosis. Stevenson’s novella offers no ‘solution’ to human evil. Hatcher’s adaptation, on the other hand, makes one wonder if Jekyll could have been helped with the right course of lithium and therapy.
If I were asked to cast any local actor to play Mr. Hyde, my sole and immediate choice would be Vela’s, absolutely: Jeremy Schwartz. And he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Simply by his size, his presence, his manner, Schwartz’ Hyde is the glowering thug of your nightmares. But of course, he’s only one-fourth of this Hyde, so the actor’s fearfulness is watered down. And it’s watered down even more when he must turn around and also play the reasonable Mr. Utterson.
Which is ironic. And telling. Schwartz’ two-sided performance as Hyde/Utterson is precisely what Stevenson wanted to convey about the inseparable nature of human good and evil. And Schwartz does it more succinctly, more convincingly than anything else in Hatcher’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’