Review: Nick Dear’s ‘Frankenstein’ is Must-See Drama at A Noise Within in Pasadena

Michael Manuel in Nick Dear's "Frankenstein" at A Noise Within in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” might be forever entwined in popular lore, but one will never fully grasp the grisly impact and moral quandaries of the graphically galvanizing play until they experience Nick Dear’s production, directed with pulse-pounding pacing by Michael Michetti. The two-hour turbulent thrill ride, which is now playing at A Noise Within in Pasadena through September 8th, is not just shocking at times, but seeks to ask very insightful and philosophical questions about how black-or-white reasoning falls asunder when pressed under the scope of a harsh reality.

In this unique play unfolded from the perspective of the Creature, it becomes clear that one’s motives can be unnervingly rationalized depending on the point of view. More so than that, we learn how good and evil are not just opposites but can exist simultaneously in one individual.

Harrison White and Michael Manuel in Nick Dear’s “Frankenstein” at A Noise Within in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

The Creature, misunderstood from “birth” when he was cobbled from an amalgamation of human parts, is a creation of the highly inquisitive and scientifically driven Victor Frankenstein. Michael Manuel and Kasey Mahaffy compellingly portray the reputed “monster” and the scientist with a God complex, respectively, as audiences witness barbarity and civility as two sides of the same coin. The two actors are highly effective in telling the multifaceted story, which debuted in 2011 when Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller played the roles of surrogate father and son. It is a dynamic that begins in Bavaria, Germany, and takes us halfway around the world before its conclusion.

The antique mirrors and wood pillars, comprising the scenery by François-Pierre Couture, are appropriately foreboding, as is Garry Lennon’s costumes as well as Shannon Hutchins’ and Angela Santori’s makeup, the latter of which underscores the horror of not just the Creature’s mien, but his frighteningly well-reasoned actions. Further immersing the observer into the tale is Robert Oriol’s spine-tingling sound design and Jared A. Sayeg’s dark lighting, which jointly presage the impending terror.

Kasey Mahaffy and Van Brunelle in Nick Dear’s “Frankenstein” at A Noise Within in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Manuel, who begins his tour-de-force performance with masterful physical acting — in striving to reconcile the Creature’s rigor mortis-affected limbs — is utterly electrifying in bringing a sincerity to the once growling figure who, over time, pivots to a scholarly rationale for vengeance which, in its macabre form, percolates gut-wrenchingly throughout the theatre. One witnesses the Creature’s inner turmoil and agony spill out not just in a crimson-fogged violence, but in the form of an intrinsic desire to overcome his loneliness by pair-bonding with his own kind.  From his staccato movements as he better acquaints himself with his fashioned body, to his burgeoning understanding of his misbegotten place in the world, Manuel is amazing for being able to curry sympathy for a character who commits unspeakably heinous crimes.

Mahaffy, who has become an engrossingly versatile performer, is also excellent as Victor Frankenstein in conveying an excited trepidation about his breakthrough that becomes muted by a moral consideration for humanity. Victor is not willing to see his Creature upend the natural order of things, but he becomes bound by an emotional connection to his progeny, who, one might say, was a victim of circumstances beyond his control, like being the object of public detestation and harassment for simply being atypical in appearance. Mahaffy terrifically balances the line between what his persona ought to do and what he feels is his obligation.

Michael Manuel and Erika Soto in Nick Dear’s “Frankenstein” at A Noise Within in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Moreover, Erika Soto is a standout as the blameless and innocent wife-to-be of Victor, Elizabeth, whose civilized virtuousness is a potent contrast to the mercurialness of the Creature. Not to mention, she also makes for a perfect Female Creature – especially in her synchronized dance with her animated counterpart — but the preternatural union is sadly not to be.

Similarly, as neophyte farmers residing in a cottage, Thomas Hobson and Tania Verafield make for a well-intentioned married couple in Felix and Agatha as does Harrison White as De Lacey, Felix’s blind father, who proves to be heartwarming in teaching the Creature to be compassionate and literate in the great poems and scholarly works. The three performers symbolize a snapshot of grace and kindness, vis-à-vis the Creature, which isn’t favorably received for long due to a misunderstanding.

Last, but not least, Björn Johnson and Van Brunelle (who shares his part with Christian Ganiere) are terrific in depicting Monsieur Frankenstein (Victor’s dad) and William Frankenstein (kid brother), who are important peripheral players in reacting to the alarming developments that envelop them.

Certainly, there aren’t many stage productions that linger in the minds of audience members like Nick Dear’s take on “Frankenstein” does. Michetti’s staging and overall execution of the high-stakes drama at A Noise Within, while sometimes uncomfortable due to the justifiable ruthlessness of its presentation, never fails to be fascinating. And more so than that, it delves deep into the conscious and the unconscious, where we’re left to contemplate our own ineluctable desire to be loved and understood, along with how our fate fits into the interplay between nature and nurture. Without question, “Frankenstein” is a dramatic spectacle with a hard-hitting substance that resonates viscerally.

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