Two centuries ago on a dark and rainy day in Switzerland, an 18-year-old began tackling the challenge from her famous literary friend to write a chilling horror story.
Now that precocious teenager, a deeply troubled soul as well, emerges as a main character in a mind-spinning new play spurred by her eerie novel and staged by a cast virtually all younger than she was.
I Am Frankenstein
Where: Maumelle Performing Arts Center, 100 Victory Lane, Maumelle
When: 7 p.m. today and Friday
Admission: $5 for students, $7 for others
Information: (501) 851-5350
Playwright: John Haman
Director and designer: Bob Birdsong
Maumelle High student actors: Kevin Shipp, Elisha Summers, Katharine Nelson, Miller Wright, Alannah Sampson, Falon Scott, Cayce Blackwell, Lyric Roberts, Jamie Jewell, Hattie Gore, Arriana Teem, Hannah Davis, Sarah Morrison, Emilee Millerd, Ravin Lussier, Ember Reynolds, Jakobi Oliver, Sonny Matthews, Grace Peterson, Zakei Allen
Student designers: Elizabeth Teem, Ember Reynolds, Patrick Hobbs.
Student assistant directors: Sade Hendrix, Yaniz Fuentes
The writer was Mary Shelley. The poet of fame was Lord Byron. Shelley's book was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, whose title character is known worldwide these days — and often caricatured in popular culture.
The two-act production, written by John Haman with direction and design by Bob Birdsong, is titled I Am Frankenstein. Its cast members are Maumelle High School students. World-premiere performances for the public are set tonight and Friday in the school's 1,200-seat Maumelle Performing Arts Center, ranked as one of the state's top such venues.
"This is the story of two tortured creatures, the troubled monster created by Victor Frankenstein and the novel's troubled author, Mary Shelley," says Haman, a Hendrix College graduate and former journalist who also works as a wealth management adviser.
"This play is a first for us as an original adaptation of such literary merit," says Birdsong, stagecraft teacher and manager of the performing arts center. "At its heart, this is a feminist play, while not sacrificing the unsettling nature of the reanimation of a corpse.
"For those who love the classic Boris Karloff movie, our creature is at times terrifying and at times very sweet and childlike. There are a few moments of violence, so it may not be for the youngest children. It is a horror story, after all."
As Birdsong explains, the idea for producing I Am Frankenstein stemmed from his online friendship with Haman.
"I was musing in 2018 about doing a Thanksgiving show this season," the director and designer says. "Then John told me he had been toying with a play based on Mary Shelley's book. Later that school year, he brought us his first complete draft."
Birdsong gathered students around a table for a reading from Haman's script, "and I have never seen them so knocked over and energized by a piece of literature. I knew then that we had to do this. We really couldn't disappoint the students."
He points out that "this is a very challenging work for the students. The language is very much 'of the time,' and it is a tale of terrible personal loss, unrequited love and the breaking of moral boundaries, all of which may be new to many of them. They have worked tirelessly to bring this to life."
Haman professes to "always be impressed with what high-school students can do onstage. This is difficult material, but they are finding the emotional center of it. They are beginning to understand the conflicts going on with the characters. I think it is going to be very compelling."
Elisha Summers, who portrays the fate-provoking Victor Frankenstein, hopes "that the audience can understand the depth and the dynamics of the story as our play tells it. In popular culture, we have this image of his monster as a hideously misshapen creature lurching about. He's very one-dimensional, with no depths to his character. In our telling, he has very human complexities."
Summers sees Victor as "a villain in the sense that I do something man is not meant to do. My hubris takes me beyond what man should conceive of himself. The play is about man's responsibility for his actions and the understanding of how much we can grasp the secrets of life or death."
Haman notes that the original Frankenstein book has sometimes been hailed as the first science-fiction novel. He describes the tale as "kind of a universal myth. If Mary Shelley hadn't written this, somebody would have come along in the next 100 years and written pretty much the same story because it taps into so many universal truths and myths."
Those prevalent truths, he adds, "would start with man's inhumanity. The ultimate irony is that we're all full of devils and angels. What resonates in the story, especially with teenagers, is that we aren't created to be monsters. But at some point, we all feel like we are, whether it's because we feel alienated by our parents or society. At some point, especially in their teens, everyone feels like they were created for no purpose and abandoned."
Kevin Shipp, in his stage debut playing the forbidding and forlorn Creature, perceives his character "as a kind of child. He just wants love, like any child. He wants to be held and feel warmth. But he never gets any of that, except for a couple of scenes."
That affection comes from Victor's cousin, Elizabeth, played by Falon Scott. She becomes the Creature's mentor, getting him involved in reading and other worthwhile human activities.
"My character is one of the only pure people in the play," Scott says. "Everyone else is corrupted, a little bit or more than that. Elizabeth has compassion for even the worst characters. She's just a good person. Playing her, I cry a lot because she loses everything in her life as the story unfolds."
In giving I Am Frankenstein a feminist vision, Haman has built Mary Shelley into a principal character. As the narrative proceeds, not always chronologically, "she takes you into her novel, out of the novel and back to the writers again. We see her actively creating the story, then reappearing from time to time showing what's going on in her brain and personalizing it."
Haman's most inventive creation further adds to the female tone of a story told two centuries ago from a mainly male point of view. He has devised a female chorus "to accentuate the elements of Greek tragedy in the story."
He calls these eight darkly costumed actors the Blackbirds, "a chorus representing manifestations of Mary Shelley's mind. They push the story, create the story, comment on the story. They're actually part of Mary's psyche. They're planted in her mind so that she serves as a chorus of one to their group chorus."
Along with a general tenor of gloom, Haman asserts that there is humor in I Am Frankenstein. He jests that "in any play of mine, there's going to have to be jokes. Most of the funny stuff here turns up in the first act, before all the killing happens. Yes, there is death. This is a horror story."
Birdsong expects the audience "to leave with a healthy respect for high school actors in general and Maumelle High School specifically. Also, "they'll bear in mind it takes only that proverbial 'one bad day' to create a monster in anyone."
Haman hopes "they experience catharsis, depart with a greater sense of compassion for their fellow man and woman, and think deeply about their lives, and what they mean. That is the purpose of all theater."
Weekend on 10/31/2019
Print Headline: Monster production