by David Templeton
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as everyone knows, a creature is assembled from dead body parts and granted the spark of life. In Trevor Allen’s The Creature—a daring, artful, but ultimately problematic adaptation, the playwright puts Victor Frankenstein’s creation process in reverse, taking the original story apart and reassembling it into something similar, but entirely different.
Like Victor Frankenstein’s infamous original science project, it’s a bold idea that almost works, but ultimately goes more than a little bit wrong. As directed by Jon Tracy, at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, mixing up a meta-theatrical cocktail of misty atmosphere and sheer guts—Allen’s poetically minimalist take on the 1818 novel uses little more than three chairs, a snowy slab of white, a journal—and a trio of actors. Eschewing special effects, action scenes and monster makeup, the three barefooted narrators of Shelley’s 1818 novel—Victor Frankenstein (Tim Kniffin), Captain Walton (Richard Pallaziol), and the Creature (Robert Parsons)—all take turns telling their side of the story, rarely moving or even interacting, as they spin together a long string of beautiful but oft-tangled words.
Unlike the novel—a tale within a tale within a tale—Allen places the narratives side by side, and they bounce back and forth like a ping-pong ball, every sentence or two. Confusion and exhaustion are just some of the by-products of the playwright’s fiendish experiment. Even worse, by breaking each man’s tale into such tiny fragments, the power of Shelley’s original story is almost entirely diminished, literally smashed to pieces.
As Walton, the ship’s captain who discovers Frankenstein near the North Pole and takes his deathbed confession, Richard Pallaziol is quite good, and Tim Kniffin, as the dying mad scientist, nicely captures the last-gasp desperation of the character. But in delivering his entire story in a steady, near-lifeless monotone, the emotional arc of Frankenstein’s horrific personal journey becomes one-note, sadly hammered flat and cold.
As the Creature, Robert Parsons is served the best, and he brings an impressive sense of wounded dignity to the role of an abandoned child. But in the script, Allen goes too far in trying to make the character sympathetic, even altering the details of the Creature’s various murders. In a deliberate deviation from Shelley’s text, Allen turns each murder—including the calculated act of framing an innocent woman for one of the deaths—into a regrettable but mostly unintentional accident.
“I only wanted to speak to him!” is a recurring line.
While such story and plot changes might go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with the novel, they do matter. By turning the Creature into a hapless victim who never turns monstrous, it throws off the balance of the drama, and robs the story of much of its complexity. Imagine if Dracula never wanted to bite his victims, but somehow kept accidentally tripping and falling on their necks.
On the plus side, Jon Tracy’s set—a sloping swath of snow that runs across the stage and curves up the wall and out of sight—is beautifully done, and the lovely light design (also Tracy) and sound design (Jared Emerson Johnson) set the mood beautifully.
Though fascinating at times and visually haunting, this Creature—despite the best intentions of its talented creators—turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.
NOW PLAYING: The Creature runs through Nov. 1 at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma; Fri.-Sat.; 8pm; Sunday matinees at 2pm; $15-$25; 707/763-8920.