It was a dark and stormy night . . . . Actually, the meteorological disturbances weren’t that bad on opening night of Gideon Theater Ensemble’s new play Frankenstein Upstairs at The Secret Theater in Long Island City. Though it has been wet this month and not particularly hot (given global warming), it certainly has been no year without a summer. There was, however, a tempest raging in the minds and hearts of the cast and crew of Frankenstein Upstairs. Regular power in the theater was out due, I understand, to some faulty wiring in the basement. Even though this detracted not a jot from the production of the show, I think it would be hard to describe the bottomless pit of despair the Gideons must have felt being separated from the technology that creates and sustains modern theatrical illusion.
The play is a new telling of the classic Mary Shelley tale of a well-intentioned but overreaching scientist and his creature. Many elements of the original are there: the talk of galvinism as a glimpse into the secret mysteries of life, the well-meaning, overreaching scientist, and the creature, who ultimately elicits more of our sympathy than the creator. Some elements of later elaborations were also built into the show, like ominious lab equiptment and the need for, well, electricity. The audience had a good, apprehending laugh when Vic (the doctor) said, at the appropriate moment, “it’s alive!” The two protagonists “downstairs” become aware of the doctor upstairs when their power fades in and out, presumably because the doctor is sucking up all the electricity in the building for her grisly experiments. And the audience had another good laugh at the fact that the pretend blackout of the play was also happening in the real world of the theater.
On the other hand, the technical problems opening night couldn’t hold a candle Mac Rogers’s radical reimagining of the Frankenstein myth. The fact that three of the four characters in this show are women — and the fourth character is a gay man — presents a significant divergence from the main thread of the original story. Recall, in Mary Shelley’s original version, circa 1818, the doctor is a man, Victor, and the creature is also male. There are plenty of women in Shelley’s story, but they all act as foils to the Oedipal struggle between man and monster.
Shelley said in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein that she wanted to show how horrible it is for humans to presume to have the same powers of thought as God. To do this she appropriated the Oedipal struggle between Adam and God in Milton’s Paradise Lost as a major plot element. (At the crucial scene on a mountain in the middle of the 1818 edition, the Monster asks Doctor Vic why he would make a creature that was doomed to perdition, closely mirroring a similar scene in Book 10 of Paradise Lost where Adam asks, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay / To mould me Man?”) The question resonates centuries later because it’s the question every child asks their parent — why did you make me like this? — and the question is only ever answered when the child becomes a parent herself.
And here is the gendered rub. If you never get to become a parent, you will never know the answer to the question. Mary Shelley’s Victor is a mashup of several free-thinking, liberal men in her life, including her father William Godwin and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like them, Victor is an idealist who believes we humans can rationally devise and implement a better world free from pain and suffereing. And like Percy Shelley, it seems as though every woman in Victor Frankenstein’s life suffers. (Both Mary’s older sister and Percy’s estranged first wife committed suicide the year that Mary came up with her famous ghost story. Mary herself had a miscarriage with Percy before she turned eighteen.) Victor Frankenstein wants to use science to remove nature — that is, women — from the business of human reproduction. At the deepest level, Mary Shelley’s story is parable about the horrors phallo-centric science has visited on the world and the deep misogyny implicit in the belief that we are smarter than Nature.
And that is why Mr. Rogers play is so fascinating. The two protagonists Sophie and Marisol (Autumn Dornfeld and Diana Oh) are women who found each other at a conference for new media business coaches — a techie support group. Victoria Frankenstein (Kristen Vaughn) is a lonely woman who eavesdrops on her downstairs neighbors through an air vent in hopes of learning what human love is really all about. (This is a striking parallel to how the Monster learns to love in Mary Shelley’s story.) And Taylor (Rob Maitner) is a gay man who writes women’s erotic fiction à la Fifty Shades of Gray under a female pseudonym. All four of them live in “chosen families” (as Mr. Rogers points out in his program note), but those families appear as deeply disfuctional as any traditional, biological family. All of them deploy the discourse of thearpy and trauma (highly elaborate, scientific modes of arguing guilt and responsibility) to justify using their all-too-human pain as a cudgel to fight a war over who loves who most or best. There isn’t a traditional patriarch wielding his phallo-scalpel in sight, and yet everyone is getting cut.
There are a lot of great passages in Frankenstein Upstairs, speeches rich in emotion and ambiguity that appear to be Mr. Rogers’s emerging hallmark as a playwright. They infiltrate your ear and fill your brain with a delicious depth of meaning that only drama can convey. They work particularly well in this context because they call into question the new orthodoxy of gender relations, which says victims are sacrosanct and violators are members of an established class. Sophie, Marisol, Taylor and Victoria discover that victim is merely the flipside of victor, and empathy is too often itself a technique for wearing down the resistance of an individual who wants to be independent.
Technology is no substitute for Nature, in the same way that reason is no substitute for fully formed human intuition — intuition that is cultivated through narrative. Frankenstein Upstairs had a successful opening night (in my opinion) because the story was compelling even when the director had to yell out the light cues for the audience. Bells and whistles are nice, and they can add to the dramatists’ illusion; but they are not, and never will be, a substitute for a good story, well told, populated with deep, meaty characters who grow and change. In this case, the superb acting and direction more than compensated for a lack of electricity, so much so that the audience could have said with doctor Vic, as the play rose from the stage like a creature endued with preternatural energy, “it’s alive!”