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A Frankenstein of Too Many Parts

February 24, 2020

Four Larks

Four Larks is one of Los Angeles’s imaginative new theater companies. They’ve produced site-specific work including a trip to the Underworld, Katabasis, at the Getty Villa and two choreographed evenings of contemporary music for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

The company’s latest project is a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But unlike recent takes on the classic tale (such as by London’s National Theater and the cable TV series Penny Dreadful) Four Larks’s production — like Dr. Frankenstein’s Creature — is a stitched together creation made from ill-fitting parts.

One moment it’s a play drawing directly from the novel, the next it’s an ensemble performance of a contemporary opera with baroque tendencies. It’s also a dance piece with rambunctious choreography. But the music often has the nondescript appeal of a generic Broadway musical.

Performed in a small black box theater packed to the ceiling with antique odds and ends, it will be on stage at the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through March 1.

Director/composer Mat Sweeney explains in his program notes that “we’ve centered [Mary Shelley’s] authorship in our staging and preserved her language in our collaged libretto, though we have liberally grafted onto her ideas and imagery in our design, music, and lyrics written by Jesse Rasmussen …. We take this adaptation as an opportunity to consider the labyrinth of stories, histories, technologies, and monsters that we’ve been born into.”

Given more time, this labyrinthine approach with its reliance on intricate stagecraft (including multiple lighting effects by Brandon Baruch and projections by Laskfar Vortok), physical choreography (by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro), and instrumental and vocal performances by the entire cast might come together. At this point, however, it is a concept that is consistently at odds with itself.

For most people the image of the Creature that comes to mind is Boris Karloff or even Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. In contrast, modern stage interpretations have ultimately focused on the plight of the Creature, a distorted human amalgam of parts who enters the world as a freak without knowledge or awareness. Then, instead of being embraced he is shunned and abandoned by his creator. Alone as an outcast, he is forced to find his way, during which he experiences the unrelenting cruelty of the world. This tragic conflict, as well as his connection to his creator, is implied in Four Larks’ interpretation, but never adequately developed in the show’s hour and 15 minutes.

Claire Woolner, who narrates the story both as Mary Shelley and, at times, Dr. Frankenstein, delivers a performance that is as monotone and lifeless as the pre-animated Creature, while that role is danced with athleticism by Max Baumgarten.

There is one scene in the production that achieves the level of provocative contemporary theater: When the Creature demands that his maker create for him a bride, Kila Packett (as Frankenstein) straps the inert body of Joanna Lynn-Jacobs to an examination screen. She delivers the show’s most memorable aria as her body is literally animated with a barrage of projections.

There are elements of Four Larks’ Frankenstein that are imaginative and noteworthy. But as it stands now, it is far from ready for prime time.

Correction: As originally published, the article credited the lighting design to Ellen Warkentine. She is, in fact, one of the composers, not the lighting designer. We regret the error.

 

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).