‘Frankenstein’ at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

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“I saw a figure…or was it a reflection?” This rhetorical question literally haunts Frankenstein, an original Maryland Ensemble Theatre (‘MET’) production adapted from Mary Shelley’s classic work of gothic horror. Maryland Ensemble Theatre premiered their newest work, directed by the incredibly talented Julie Herber, on their mainstage just a few steps below West Patrick Street, in downtown Frederick.

 L-R Tim Seltzer, Vanessa Strickland, Jack Evans, Isabel Duarte, Matt Lee, and Reiner Prochaska. Photo by Joe Williams.
L-R: Tim Seltzer, Vanessa Strickland, Jack Evans, Isabel Duarte, Matt Lee, and Reiner Prochaska. Photo by Joe Williams.

Regulars at the MET know to leave convention and expectations at the door; this isn’t your grandparents’ theater experience. Instead, the writers of this original work and Director Herber thrust the audience into the heart of the conflict faced by both the creator and his creation.

The intimate theater space at the MET puts the audience in close proximity to the production, literally a step away throughout the show. An eerie off-white paint scheme covers all surfaces, the sense of an industrial laboratory/asylum are inescapable as you take your seat. Colored lighting effects from above and below provide the palette to enhance a specific experience or emotion, a swirling wave of red, blue, green and yellow wash over the ghostly white set pieces. Cecelia Lee’s set design deftly creates the atmosphere, Paul Shillinger’s lighting design enhances the mood, and Steve Younkins’ sound design adds the perfect touch.

Deploying a talented cast of MET regulars, the performers in Frankenstein glide in and out of characters familiar from the original novel. A few performances stand out. Matt Lee’s tortured Victor Frankenstein convincingly pours out his emotional anguish as he struggles with what he’s learned and done, and Jack Evans’ portrayal of the monster is equal parts painfully human and frighteningly menacing. The remaining cast; Isabel Duarte, Tim Seltzer, Reiner Prochaska, Katie Ratigan, and Vanessa Strickland move through the story as either swirling reminders of the impending conflict or family members, colleagues or strangers that wonder through the two protagonist’s worlds. Each of them contributes greatly to the overall story, either in the call-and-response scenes or when they adopt a particular character.

Stephanie Hyder’s costume design is nearly perfect, dressing the ensemble in crudely stitched-together clothing while dressing Victor in medical garb and the monster in a large tattered coat that hangs loosely from his hulking form.

The only major props seen throughout the show are books used to signify Victor’s education, hand-held mirrors that function as both water using a great lighting technique and as actual mirrors, giving the monster his first full look at what he truly is. The most interesting use of a prop is the stainless steel rolling medical table, which deftly transports actors throughout the show, but also serves as a podium, hiding place and operating table.

At approximately 75 minutes long, this one act play challenges the audience to face the moral and ethical dilemma of the doctor as he tries to square what he’s done with his own conscience, as well as the monster’s struggle to first find acceptance in a world in which he doesn’t belong and then ultimately accept his fate as the destroyer of his creator’s dreams.

At times, the production can be a bit hard to follow.  The rush of action and dialogue necessary to condense such a ponderous literary work into a one-act play creates some confusion, leaving the audience to piece it together. If you plan to go, remember that there are large structural pillars that can create obstructed views from certain seats. Several times, the audience in those areas were standing or leaning trying to follow the performances onstage.  That’s probably a good thing, though, as the action ranges across the whole space and folks were obviously interested in following it.

Jack Evans (The Creature) in 'Frankenstein' at Maryland Ensemble Theatre.
Jack Evans (The Creature). Photo by Joe Williams.

The creative team at the MET has a well-deserved reputation for avant-garde live performances that challenge the audience, stretch the imagination, and draw their patrons into the story-telling process. Quoting Artistic Director Tad Janes in his pre-show welcome: “If it weren’t for you, our audience, as well as our generous sponsors, we’d be presenting a season full of The Sound of Music.” Don’t sweat it Tad, we know with the MET that will never happen. Frankenstein is living proof of that!

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Frankenstein plays through November 15, 2015 at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre – 31 West Patrick Street, in Frederick, MD.  For tickets, call the box office at (301) 694-7477, or purchase them online.

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