Thursday, September 18, 2014

By You That Made Me, Frankenstein: Do We Create Our Own Monsters?

By You That Made Me, Frankenstein is a show about monsters. It asks the question whether those who create monsters aren’t monsters themselves. While the opera, performed and created by Philly Opera Collective and Brenna Geffers tells the story of how Mary Shelley (Kristy Joe Slough) came to write Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus within a circle of brilliant men and women who seem to have no moral compass, it is also relevant to the current discussion of how we have made monsters out of our current heroes - football players, rap singers, politicians - whose fame and power have turned them into monsters as well.

The opera is set in a rainy summer weekend in 1816 when Mary Shelley, her half-sister Claire Crystal Charles), the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Joseph Cianciulli)  - whom Mary eventually marries - and George Gordon, Lord Byron (Brendan Norton), as well as doctor John Polidori (William McGlone) are confined by the rain to a villa in Switzerland. During this weekend, Claire says, she watched “the first two poets of England become monsters.”

After reading a story in Fantasmagoriana, a collection of German tales that had been translated into French, Byron proposed a challenge. They would each write their own story. Apparently it was a successful challenge - out of it grew the monster Frankenstein as well as the precursor of Dracula, by the lesser known Shelley and Polidori, as well as poetry by the poets. So not only were the characters monstrous in their treatment of each other - sex and children were tokens in a game of power that called itself love - the two innocents among them took that behavior and turned it into monsters that the world could see.

Appropriately set in the upstairs room of The Franklin Inn Club, a literary club founded in 1902, which finally allowed women as members in 1983, it felt as if the audience was in a living room with the characters and a part of their story. Other than the characters’ tendency to break into beautiful song at any moment, you might well have been there for a social evening with these famous poets. The libretto condensed time and played with gender stereotypes. Dr. Frankenstein (Kirsten C. Kunkle) in Shelley’s vision was a woman, and raised the question whether she had originally been conceived that way - especially since Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.

The acting and singing were overall strong, although it’s hard to be in the center of an opera because the performances must necessarily be over the top. Not having to reach out to the audience, but instead being able to reach out and touch them, means the singers had to mute volume and gestures. The cast managed this admirably, although Cianculli was perhaps a bit too muted. And sympathies to the Monster (Michael A. Lienhard) who was forced to lie on the couch during the entire intermission. A note of caution however, being that near means that costumes that are acceptable at the distance of the stage, show their seams at close range.

It was an interesting performance and raised a lot of questions. Did I actually ever read Frankenstein or just see the movies? How did Mary manage to publish her novel surrounded by so many egos who would happily steal someone else’s work? Overall, a worthwhile evening that led to lots of discussion.

By You That Made Me, Frankenstein libretto by Brenna Geffers with the Philadelphia Opera Collective, directed by Brenna Geffers, Music by Josh Harman & Reese Revak as part of Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2014 at The Franklin Inn Club. 205 S Camac St.. Philadelphia, PA September ??, 2014. .

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