Two days of rehearsal last week with our trio, doing rough blocking. Starting with the storyboard, but in many cases making radical departures as soon as we find that a great idea on paper doesn’t look so great when transferred into reality. But the storyboard provides the spine, and it basically works. Since we don’t have a stage manager, it’s frustrating to stop so often to write down staging in all its detail, but otherwise it’ll be forgotten. Next rehearsals coming up on Saturday and Sunday.
We have a costumer now. First meeting next week or thereabouts.
Tuesday we went to a theatrical telecast of the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of Frankenstein, a huge London hit directed by Danny Boyle, with script by Nick Dear. I’m glad to have seen it, pretty much agree with the critics that the staging is quite wonderful, the script terrible, and the Creature’s performance quite astonishing.
I can’t pretend to be unbiased regarding the script, of course, and I’m not the one to make a case against deviations from the novel. Problem for me is that as dramaturgy the scenes are shapeless and much of the dialogue on the level of an educational play about dental hygiene—gets said what needs to get said, but that’s about it. It’s commendable that there’s some hint of Mary Shelley’s own background as daughter of prominent freethinkers, but in clunky, tacked-on language. And it’s commendable that the Creature is given a voice, as in the novel.
Like most adaptations, Victor becomes a dull, one-note character: he’s obsessed with his mission and his genius, but we really have no idea why except that the story is supposed to be about the dangers of science or some such thing. But the poor actor has little to play except rant, rant harder, and rant hardest.
Indeed, Victor inevitably comes off as a bit of a twit in his flight from responsibility, his neglect of Elizabeth, and his infinite self-absorption—not unlike Percy Shelley in many ways—and our own adaptation even underlines this for comic effect. And for me in playing him, it’s a special challenge in that I often play dry, tormented but emotionally distant men, and it’s very easy for him to fall into a well-worn groove. But somehow I have to discover how an audience can feel empathy with him even as his floundering destroys everything around him.
This performance of the Creature involves a physicalization somewhat based on cerebral palsy victims, very contorted and hyperactive, sometimes coming into more control. It’s a remarkable feat of physical execution by an actor with a beautiful physique, and along with the scenic effects make it clear why it’s a hit.
For me, though, the performance is self-defeating. I could never stop thinking, Wow, what an incredible performance, and instead actually feel deeply for the Creature. And the choice of the physicalization in combination with the make-up—a bit of scarring and dirt smudges, but no actual deformity—makes it puzzling, on a realistic level, that the sight of him so shocks those who come in contact with him. The thinking seems to be that his palsied contortions are intrinsically terrifying, but as this leads us to think realistically, it’s hardly credible, given that any Londoner could probably have seen beggars on the street in worse condition every day.
It’s a good idea not to resort to the monster-makeup of the movies, as Shelley is very vague about his actual appearance. But it seems to me that as soon as we lead the audience into thinking realistically, then our realistic answer has to be air-tight. My own solution has been to make it entirely a “metaphoric” reaction to a creature whose sin is that he looks completely human, beautiful, in fact. The deformity is what others project upon him, and what he soon internalizes. We’ll see how that works.
Still, it was useful to see this production—well worth seeing despite my complaints—and I was immensely relieved that it bears not the remotest resemblance to anything we contemplate doing.
At last, a continuation of our storyboard. First, a few notes.
This past weekend, we had our first rehearsals with our full three-person contingent, and what happens, of course, is that much of your planning goes out the window. No, Elizabeth has to be Stage Left at the end of the scene so she can hit the light cue, but can she get around back in time for the entrance? No, those two puppeteers can’t be directly behind the table because the third is squatting behind it. No, that third hand that appears at this magical moment is already holding a puppet—I mis-counted.
Nevertheless, the storyboard is an important beginning. As in writing, for me I’m a better re-writer and re-stager than I am a writer and stager. It’s a bit like an artilleryman firing off some test rounds as range-finders, and in this case, fortunately, the puppets don’t fire back. The puppeteers, well, they’re there to help solve the problems, and the healthy juggling of ideas from all sources is stimulated by our urge to keep warm in a chilly studio.
And now we have our third actor. Initially, our plan was to perform it entirely as the Bishop/Fuller duo, with a tech person to run cues and provide an extra hand when needed. But gradually Elizabeth came to feel that the Victor/Creature dyad needed a male-to-male energy, contrasting radically with the lone female, the fictional “Elizabeth.” That decision made, the first thought that came to us both was—our son Eli. He performed a few years back in our cast of Code Red and long ago as the Boy in Waiting for Godot, and an incredibly moving performance in our radio drama Abbie, but we’ve never been on stage with just the three of us. A first. It’ll be a logistical challenge, as he lives in San Francisco, works in Oakland, and is the co-caretaker of a bouncing German Shepherd. But in this outfit, Logistical Challenges R Us.
In the dark, Voice of Mary, rapid, as if making notes. The voice overlaps itself, accelerating.
VOICE OF MARY: The dying process. Many paths. Begin to withdraw. Decline visits from friends. Food less appealing. Hard to swallow. Altered perception. Pick at the sheets.
Breathing irregular. Rapid breath. Rattles. Random jerks. Mottled feet. Purple lips. Bluish nails. Glassy stare. Breath very rapid or very slow. Release of urine or faeces. Death.
15- LIGHTS UP SHARP. Victor at his desk DR. Elizabeth distant, UL, sitting.
VIDEO OF SLOW-MOVING FOLIAGE, OVERLAID WITH HIS CHILD FACE.
Elizabeth holds a mirror. When she speaks to Victor, it’s into her mirror image.
ELIZABETH: Dear Victor, I miss you. I hope your studies are going well. The lilacs are out. Please write.
Victor swats at a fly. Swats again. At last he squashes it in a book. [SM hand is Victor’s second hand.]
Victor, I miss you. Please write.
Victor opens the pages of the book, pokes at the fly.
Remember we were little, I was dreaming I still had a mother, and then I woke up, and cried. And you heard me: “It’s ok, when I’m big I’ll make it so nobody dies.” Then your mother died.
Victor, please write.
Victor scrapes up the fly, puts it on desk. Looks in book. Makes signs over it. Pours something on it. Looks.
But I’ve always felt safe with you.
There is death, yes. To change that is childish fancy.
But there’s birth. There’s love, and then birth, and life.
He touches the fly. It begins to buzz.
LIGHTS OUT on Elizabeth. VIDEO FADES.
Victor watches the fly come to life, then to fly. He is stunned, overjoyed, clapping his hands in glee. Suddenly, he realizes that his clapping has squashed the fly.
16- AUDIO: MUMBLING OF PROFESSORS.
17- SM slides in Toy Theatre grooves behind him: a set of PROFESSORS as two-dimensional cutouts. Their arms rise in union at intervals as their MUMBLING punctuates the scene. Victor piles more books on his desk. Clerval appears DL; on the table in front of him, an electric adding machine. During the following, Victor studies, Clerval adds.
CLERVAL: Victor, you haven’t written.
VICTOR: I’ve been working.
CLERVAL: Elizabeth is worried.
CLERVAL: Your father says hello, and Wilma.
CLERVAL: Wilma. Your sister. Little Wilma.
MUMBLES and gestures of Professors.
Well, Victor, I’d better be going. I need to butcher some friends for lunch.
VICTOR: Yes. Enjoy. What?
18- He looks around his own study. Realizes Clerval is joking. They laugh, seeing each other for the first time.
I’m sorry. It’s my studies.
CLERVAL: Well I’m envious. You in college, being brilliant, and me working for my dad.
VICTOR: Getting rich.
CLERVAL: And keeping Elizabeth cheerful.
It’s disgusting. She speaks to me with passionate longing … for you.
They all say, “Won’t they make a lovely young couple!” Since you were ten years old. Where do I fit in?
VICTOR: There was so much time.
19- MUMBLING of Professors. Victor reaches out to Clerval, brings him around behind the Professors. Focused on his own inner torment, Victor launches into a vehement speech, all in mime. Clerval gives words to what he’s hearing. Professors gesticulate at intervals.
CLERVAL: You came to study science, and all you’d read were old rare books in your father’s study.
Paracelsus—the divine animation of matter—the philosopher’s stone—Albertus Magnus—elixir of life.
And your professors laughed themselves silly. You were ridiculed.
CANNED LAUGHTER. Victor in a frenzy of mime.
But you mastered them. You mastered all they had to teach. Your progress became legend. You won every honor.
Professors into spasmodic fibrillation. They disappear.
20- Victor returns to desk DR, Clerval DL.
VICTOR: But it’s farcical! Science shows me a banquet of riches, and I’m sick of it. The more I gorge, the more ravenous I am.
I want what those old clowns promised, the alchemists, the magicians. They promised me Life.
CLERVAL: You look alive. Just barely. Victor, what’s really the problem?
CLERVAL: Is it money? Drugs, are you on drugs? You’re in love? You’ve got somebody pregnant?
CLERVAL: You’ve thought about suicide. But everybody does. Or cholesterol, herpes, Armageddon. What is it, Victor? Tell me!
VICTOR: Life. I want there to be no more death.
21- Victor is transfixed. He comes into C. Behind, VIDEO OF CHILDBIRTH, OVERLAID WITH SEA.
Birth brings with it Death.
Your eyes open in blood, bathed in motherblood, and it’s only a matter of years.
We court women, cajole them, and they give us tiny corpses, little slugs that beshit themselves, and it’s only a matter of years.
What if we made birth obsolete? No more spewing seed that flies to the wind. No womb to bleed out the debris, the hopes, illusions, cans and bottles, candy wrappers, kleenex, the litter of loving.
Make our own child, without a woman.
Child of no mother, who cannot die because he has not been born. He is fully formed of our intent.
He rises to meet us, his father, in all his glory, and there is no more mourning. Never.
Henry, I’m very close to creating Life.
CLERVAL: Victor, what’s really the problem?
22- Long moment. At last, Victor comes L to Clerval, claps him on the shoulder.
VICTOR: Well ok, you’re too smart for me. It’s— I’m failing math.
But it’s ok. I’m getting medical attention.
Clerval embraces him.
Give my love to Elizabeth. Now I have to work.
23- Clerval, deeply moved, embraces him repeatedly, finally departing off L with his adding machine.
24- Victor, exhausted, collapses at his desk. The fly animates and buzzes away. Victor is astonished.
TO BLACK. MUSIC