Review: ‘Frankenstein’ by We Happy Few

A giant, wheezing monster, many feet tall and wide, a formless head towering over the audience, bathed in green light, with a voice made of dust and despair. That’s just one of the many fabulous horrors awaiting you in We Happy Few’s production of Frankenstein. As the spookiest of holidays approaches, this eerie and funny show adds some welcome tweaks and interpretations to Mary Shelley’s romantic classic as it dives into explorations of humanity, belonging, and fear.

Stefany Pesta, Navid Azeez, Paige O’Malley, and Scott Whalen in Frankenstein. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

The four-person play is directed by Robert Pike and Bridget Grace Sheaff (Keith Hock, Kerry McGee, Paige O’Mally, Sam Reilly, and Jon Reynolds helped, too). The group titles themselves “devisors,” having collaborated on everything that makes this show so creative and brilliant: the versatile costumes, expressive lighting, props, incredible acting and more.

If you never read Frankenstein in high school, worry not. The easy-to-follow play welcomes veterans and novices alike. It starts with a 19th-century ship captained by Robert Walton (the amazing and indefatigable Stefany Pesta) painstakingly cutting through arctic ice. When the first mate (Paige O’Malley) and a sailor (Navid Azeez) pull a man (Scott Whalen), dripping, broken and pathetic, from the ice onto the ship, he recounts to them, and the audience, his tale of pain and horror.

You see, he’s a scientist who left his home and fiance to attend school. There, young Dr. Frankenstein discovered how to bring life to inanimate matter. His creation, however, strikes fear into his heart. When it escapes, he’s relieved. So was I.

The formless beast is more of an idea than a character. Azeez holds its head high in the air while Pesta and O’Malley command it’s hollow wooden frame and arms. While one speaks, the others wheeze. They move the creation’s body along the belabored and pained breathing they espouse. It’s…it’s alive!

It’s an essential piece to the entire show. Instead of multiple props, sound effects and tricks, the four actors of the play rely almost solely on a few basic materials. The rest of the scenes are rounded out with their vocal chords and movements. At one point, Azeez and O’Malley double as the hull of a ship. At another Pesta’s vocal sound effects portend to sinking water. Together, these four people create mountains, rivers. and reflections. It’s beautiful magic, magnificent to behold.

To Frankenstein, the rest is a story of the terror wrought upon his family by a monster he created. To the monster, it’s something far more tragic. And when that perspective changes, so does the creation. The hulking, grotesque beast is replaced by Azeez. His explorations of his new body and surroundings as the monster, as well as his quick education in humanity, and the consequences of its absence, is one of the best acting moments in a play of many.

Scott Whalen in Frankenstein. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

There were O’Malley’s not-so-subtle snarky facial expressions as she gives life to the character Elizabeth in a way Mary Shelley never did. There’s the brief and knee-slapping Princess Bride reference from Pesta. There’s Whalen, careening from angry to frightened, manic to despairing.

Every precise move by the cast adds something new and exciting to the show, as they interact with each other and the audience. And the four of them transform easily and quickly. Add the right hat, and a monster becomes a loving father. Remove a coat and a strict magistrate can become a babbling brook.

The lighting is the cherry on top, and it has to be. With so few actors and so little in the way of set design, the lighting grounds the scenes. A high-blue coldness in the Arctic. A glowing green shadow surrounding The Creation. The actors holding flashlights against their faces in the dark, as if their heads are floating.

Put it all together, and it’s positively creepy—not just in its portrayal, but in how on edge you can get with such simple yet creative use of the body, vocal chords, and lighting. Be careful, a well-timed shriek could have you launching some of your complimentary drink into your lap. At least, that’s what happened to me.

Before it’s done, Victor will confront his creation, and himself. It is just a story, sure. But it’s worth asking. What monsters have you created?

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Frankenstein plays through November 10, 2018, at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th St SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.