Frankenstein, Lost in Darkness: waiting to be found at Pacific Theatre

Pacific Theatre is presenting Frankenstein as a radio play.

Tariq Leslie as Frankenstein’s creature. 

Taking in Frankenstein: Lost in Darkness is very much like sitting around a fire on a winter evening and listening to a storyteller who is very good — if a little long-winded.

Peter Church has adapted Mary Shelley’s novel as a staged radio play and it’s full of foley effects. So, when Dr. Frankenstein’s creature enters a room, we see an actor dropping one shoe in front of another in front of a microphone to create the heavy footsteps. And, when the doctor sets sail for England, another performer sloshes a paddle in a vat of water. When a character is hanged, an actor releases a tripwire, a sandbag falls, and a wooden flap slaps against the wall — like the sound of a gallows floor snapping open.

Sound designer Rick Colhoun layers in all sorts of textures. When the creature (played by Tariq Leslie) is speaking in the voice of his diary, he’s articulate and refined: recognizably human. But when the monster tries to communicate with other humans in real time, Leslie steps in front of a different mic and the voice that emerges is a growling, huge, and strangled. There are echoes and whispers. It’s all very cool.

As in radio, the actors stand at podiums reading their scripts, and lighting designer Jonathan Kim has a field day with these more or less static figures. Most often, he illuminates them in tight beams from almost directly above so the actors’ faces loom out of the darkness like the subjects in Rembrandt’s portraits — but decidedly more stark and sinister.

For me, the gift of Church’s adaptation is that it brings to light plot turns and details that I never knew existed. And, even though, in terms of verisimilitude, Mary Shelley’s story is crudely imagined by today’s standards — there’s no way that Frankenstein’s composite creature could survive on his own, never mind reach the level of intellectual sophistication that this monster does — the poetic resonance of the tale endures.

As many of us do in some part of our psyches, the creature feels uniquely abandoned and uniquely alone. There is, he says, “no other like me on the earth.” The creature also feels uniquely worthless — with good reason: no one can look at him without terror and revulsion.

Dr. Frankenstein, who is also notably wrapped up in himself, is a figure of nauseating moral compromise. Selfishly, he seeks pure knowledge as he builds the creature, his ambition blinding him to possible consequences. Heartlessly, he rejects his Adam and, even as the monster starts to wreak murderous havoc, Frankenstein’s self-interest renders him unable to tell the truth — and accept responsibility — for a tragically long time. Watching him equivocate, I felt like my insides were being sucked out of me.

Unfortunately, it seems that Mary Shelley didn’t know when to shut up — I’m not sure any of the Romantics did — and Church doesn’t always know when to edit her either. Some of the conversations between Frankenstein and the monster are so long and circular that I found myself checking out for substantial stretches. And, when I checked back in, the same points were still being made.

Still, under Chris Lam’s direction, this production is handsome and the acting is solid. Corina Akeson plays Dr. Frankenstein (as a man) and her femaleness didn’t cause so much as a ripple of distraction for me. In fact, I enjoyed the ferocity, the extravagant romanticism in a way, of her performance. Her basic stance is a lunge. She lurches and grabs at the air and often feels coiled and ready for more violent movement. Akeson’s Frankenstein reminded me of her portrait of King Leontes in Classic Chic’s all-female version of The Winter’s Tale in 2014: it’s huge and it’s authentic.

Although there are vocal outbursts, Tariq Leslie is more physically contained as the monster. And, since the monster’s purity is at the heart of the story, this relative stillness is an effective choice. And Leslie knows how to get maximum contrast out of his character’s two voices.

Matthew Simmons and Diana Squires provide skilled support, Squires most notably as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s betrothed.

It’s good to hear a classic story well told. And the presence of other patrons’ bodies around you in the theatre makes it a warmer, more human experience than watching TV at home.

FRANKENSTEIN: LOST IN DARKNESS Adapted by Peter Church from Mary Shelley’s novel. Directed by Chris Lam. A Wireless Wings Radio Ensemble production presented by Pacific Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Wednesday, October 23. Continues until November 2. Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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