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African American actress Stephanie Berry plays the creature and his creator in this new production at Classic Stage Company
The original mad scientist story, Frankenstein, is alive on stage once more, but this stripped-down interpretation is a bold new experiment. Tristan Bernays' two-actor adaptation of Mary Shelley's iconic 1818 tale—which is being performed in rep with a fresh rendition of Dracula at Classic Stage Company—stars African American actress Stephanie Berry as both the monster and his creator.
A stage veteran whose credits include Sugar in Our Wounds at Manhattan Theatre Club, Soho Rep.'s for all the women who thought they were Mad and her Obie-winning solo show The Shaneequa Chronicles: The Making of a Black Woman, Berry realizes people automatically "think of a white male" when they picture the parts she's playing. However, she says that the plight of the creature, who's rejected by society because of his appearance, is one she identifies with on a personal level.
"When you think of Frankenstein, you think of horror, you think of being repulsed," Berry says. "The African American woman knows better than anyone the conflict of the Western concept of beauty. How do we compete, how do we get accepted? That's a fruitless battle, because we'll never win."
From the outset, director Timothy Douglas wanted a performer of color in the dual lead role. "I just knew I didn't want to do what was expected," he says. His preproduction research yielded ample justification for his choice. "Mary Shelley was very aware of slavery in America," he says. With the character of the creature, who's physically superior to ordinary men yet seen as less than human, "she was musing about what it is to be a slave."
Once Douglas had settled on his concept, Berry came to mind almost immediately as they'd worked together previously, most recently on August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean at Washington, D.C.'s Round House Theatre a little over a year ago. "I started thinking about Stephanie—her sensibility in terms of how pure and honest she is in her work, no matter what she's doing," he says. "I knew that was the quality that I wanted to explore the creature through."
In the production, Berry is first seen as the reanimated creature, coming (back) to life after his maker has fled the laboratory. She spends much of the show embodying his journey from curious newborn to intelligent being, capable of speech and reason.
Although Douglas had seen the classic Boris Karloff Frankenstein movies, in which the creature lumbers and grunts, "I had never read the novel until I got this assignment," he says. "To my shock and surprise, he speaks!" Berry was also surprised by the complexities of Shelley's original text. "The way that Frankenstein is usually portrayed is really quite different from what Mary Shelley created," she says, though she adds that every version of the story shows that "he was not born a monster but was made into one by society."
The creature's evolution from innocence to evil is driven by his fraught interactions with various people, all played by Berry's sole castmate, Rob Morrison, who also provides live musical accompaniment. The monster's attempts to connect with others are met with fear and disgust at every turn. "The creature does terrible things because he has been taught that," explains Berry. "That was not the natural instinct." Ironically, it's only after he has embraced violence that he is reunited with the doctor who abandoned him. Berry then takes on that role as well, seamlessly switching back and forth between the two characters. "In some ways, the doctor and the creature are one," she says, noting their shared thirst for knowledge and mutual hatred.
Douglas, who is also African American, is gratified that his take on Frankenstein is getting such a high-profile mounting. "It's rare that an operation like Classic Stage Company is even interested in having a European classic interpreted by a person of color," he says. "I only just met [artistic director] John Doyle coming to this project, and he clearly, in that regard, is woke."
For her part, Berry wishes the parallels between the creature's story and her own lived experience weren't quite so relevant in 2020. "I was in the Black is Beautiful generation and involved in a lot of observation of other cultures and different perceptions of what is beautiful," she says. "I thought we had come beyond that; I began to meet men who had unlearned the concept of beauty that was imposed upon us by television and media, and then we seemed to revert again."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Stephanie Berry in Frankenstein. Photos by Joan Marcus.