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You've Never Seen 'Frankenstein' Like This

By: Regina Robbins
Date: Dec 26, 2017

Why the monster dances in Ensemble for the Romantic Century's interpretation of the tale


From Mel Brooks's campy musical comedy to a notorious closed-on-opening-night Broadway flop to the National Theatre's production with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein has been adapted for the theatre countless times. In fact, in October, there were four different stage takes on the iconic horror story running simultaneously in New York City, including one just for kids.

Even though Halloween has given way to the holidays, Frankenstein is being resurrected -- make that reimagined -- yet again, this time by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century (ERC), a 16-year-old company that specializes in 19th-century period pieces that fuse live performance, visual art, and classical music.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, currently running at the Pershing Square Signature Center, intertwines the tale of the mad scientist and his ungodly creation with the real-life biography of Shelley. Born to a pair of radical British intellectuals, Mary Godwin became the lover and eventual wife of Romantic poet Percy Shelley, and she wrote Frankenstein in response to a challenge from their friend Lord Byron. According to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein director Donald T. Sanders, she is both an emblem of the Romantic period and a harbinger of the 21st century. "She embodies our modern life," he says, having "delved into her own feelings of alienation" to produce her timeless text.

ERC founder and executive artistic director Eve Wolf penned the script for this adaptation, which is based on letters and journals written by Mary, Percy, and others in their circle as well as the original novel. It focuses on the connections between Mary's personal struggles -- dealing with marital discord and the deaths of several children -- and the fictional conflict between Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his forlorn creature. Trained as a pianist and possessing what Sanders calls "an encyclopedic knowledge of music," Wolf conceived of ERC as a vessel to explore chamber music (think Bach, Schubert, and Liszt) in a dynamic and unorthodox way. "Eve calls it time travel," says Sanders, explaining that the company's productions are like "tone poems" that aim to take the audience on a "theatrical adventure."


Joining Wolf and Sanders on the Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ride are notables from diverse corners of entertainment, including opera singer Krysty Swann; concert pianist Steven Lin; TV star Paul Wesley as Dr. Frankenstein; and dancer-actor Robert Fairchild as the monster and the show's choreographer. Sanders had seen the former New York City Ballet principal Fairchild in his Tony-nominated performance in An American in Paris on Broadway, and thought of him immediately for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Sanders says they wanted someone who could "embody the character without having to narrate." After reading Wolf's script, Fairchild was so impressed that he agreed to pull double duty. The production marks his choreographic debut as he communicates the creature's complicated emotions through movement.

Like Fairchild and Wolf, Sanders is also a creative hybrid. "I had training in film," he explains, "but liked the theatre process more than the film process." That made Sanders a natural fit for ERC, where he has served as director of theatrical production since 2005. The term hybrid applies to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as well: it's a concert, a dance piece, and a play all in one. For Sanders, ERC's multidisciplinary productions mirror Mary Shelley's approach to art and life as "a young woman who had a career, and had to contend with also being a mother and a wife." Instead of conforming to one role, she expanded her possibilities: "She has created Victor, she has created the monster," says Sanders. "And she created herself."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Go here to browse our current offers.

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: Krysty Swann and Robert Fairchild in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Photos by Shirin Tinati.

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.