Few novels are as iconic as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). For a writer or playwright to attempt to create a new take on the metaphors in the Gothic groundbreaker is a recipe for disaster, but occasionally someone sees a new manner in which to reinterpret the standard, and it works. That was the case when Summer Sisters, a theater group led by Tamara Kissane and Rachel Klem presented Monster Camp on Aug. 28-30 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC.
This production is what happens when you imagine a group of theater women spending their summer vacations together to successfully create an updated version of what they call a “mother work.” The ensemble of actresses that blend together to create this montage of pieces related to the larger piece of Shelley’s Frankenstein includes Flynt Burton, Sylvia Freeman, Amanda Hahn, Carissa White, Tamara Kissane, Rachel Klem, Dierdre Shipman, Laurie Siegel, Amber Wood, and Emily Hill.
The show starts with the ensemble onstage, each woman coming from various parts of the small theater, to take their places behind music stands, where they begin with a selection of the epistolary techniques used to construct the backbone of Frankenstein. The way their voices blend and overlap to create the voices and sentiments of the main characters is impeccable. The technical aspect of timing and weaving the stories in and around each other is difficult, but the group makes it work and lays the underpinning for the rest of the scenes that follow throughout the play itself.
Shelley’s novel is chock-full of themes that include birth, alienation, the politics of death, the ways in which people communicate, loneliness, life, appearance, family, science, secrets, fate, and free will. All of these themes (and other metaphors) are addressed by this ensemble in interesting and arresting ways. However, it does help if the audience has some understanding of the story and its metaphorical aspects. Though the opening scene and truncated story of the original work helps the audience to understand, an even deeper level of intimacy with the text is necessary to understand the “inside jokes” implicit in each of the pieces.
In one scene, Millicent, a woman with a heavy Southern accent, is waiting to get married to someone she’d written to in prison. Her crazy and unrealistic expectations cause nervous laughter throughout the audience, but it’s also something which underlines the theme that we are all monsters, at some level or another.
In each of the passages, the women either sing or chant, illustrating their togetherness as an ensemble and their strength as individuals within the group. One of the scenes is about resurrection, and the question raised is whether a person who is cremated can gather body pieces everywhere and create one’s own monster. Though one hears that question during the scene, it is one that resonates with the audience afterwards, which is something Shelley (and, one is sure, Summer Sisters) intended for the audience to consider. For a play to pose a tough, unanswered question is both risky and dramatic. The unanswered questions in this play directly parallel those which were originally raised by Mary Shelley herself.
At one point in the production, you realize that each of the women has a jagged stitch of red on her shirt, as if a bit of her heart is bleeding out. Each woman’s red thread is on a different part of her shirt: across the heart, above the shoulder, on the sleeve, toward the abdomen. That image echoes each woman’s piece in the whole ensemble. They are joined by that slice of redness, as if the blood represented by the zig zag of thread is indicative of their sisterhood and reminiscent of their part as pieces of a whole.
One of the funniest pieces of the performance is a bit echoing an AA group for monsters. (“Hi, my name is Frank, and I’m a monster”). Each of the characters states her monster tendency in an ironic and humorous way. The ensemble is able to act out personality quirks in a very substantial manner that hits home, because everyone has something within them that can be identified as “monster-like.” The best comedy is that which strikes one as close to home, and this particular part of the evening is most successful.
The secrets and confusion in Shelley’s piece is shadowed in a very eerie part of the evening’s montage where the secret is urged: “Let’s just keep this between us, okay?” Whispered comments and hidden moments reflect the embarrassment of secrets and the necessity to hide that which might be true or painful. Or both.
In the original novel, the monster is not named, and that issue is addressed in a pregnancy scene which examines how people are named. One of the most memorable lines of the evening comes from this scene: “A name means someone wants you.” In every culture, the naming tradition is meaningful. Some Native American tribes choose to name a new child by identifying the first thing the parent sees after the birth and giving that image to the child. Other cultures choose names far before the child is born, while yet others wait until the baby is arrived and lets the child determine what his/her name might be. Of all the things we own during our lives, our name is the one and only thing no one can take away, and it was the one thing that Dr. Frankenstein’s monster never had and always wanted. One wonders whether the monster would have been named if Frankenstein had been female, if Frankenstein had been a mother rather than a scientist.
Toward the end of the play, the women come together in a writhing, connected mass of bodies on the floor, each touching another. A swell of music causes them all to move together and rise, one after another, together and alone, monster and creator, human and alien. It’s the perfect ending to what was a powerful, funny, thoughtful, and emotional evening.
Bravo, Summer Sisters! We can’t wait to see what you will do next year.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 29th Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://thefivepointsstar.com/2014/08/29/monster-camp-summer-sisters-sweet-skit/; and Aug. 27th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/monster-camp/Event?oid=4205660.
MONSTER CAMP: AN ARTISTIC EXPLORATION OF MARY SHELLEY’S “FRANKENSTEIN” (Summer Sisters, in association with Common Ground Theatre, Aug. 28-30 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC).
SHOW: https://www.facebook.com/events/325791334247451/ and http://www.cgtheatre.com/events.
CO-PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.cgtheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/cgtheatre, and https://twitter.com/CGTheatre919.
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.com/.