Good for David Oliver for having enough faith in Mary Shelley's original "Frankenstein" to let her creation speak.
In adapting the original story for the Road Less Traveled stage, Oliver bypassed 200 years of rewrites that turned the anguished creature into a mute and macabre monster. Instead, the "Frankenstein" that stalks RLTP gives voice to both our better and our worst angels.
But don't worry. The tale also delivers its own special brand of horror, whether you find yourself identifying with amateur egotistical scientist Victor Frankenstein, tormented by what he has wrought, or with his hulking inhuman experiment, a being struggling within an existence he never sought.
Actor Steve Copps as The Creature makes that struggle wildly physical, the thrashing of his limbs echoing the turmoil in his reawakened brain. Although at first jolt he seems to be headed for a Hollywood version of the creature (sans bolts and flat-top), we quickly learn that he has a heart.
Within his confusion he quickly shows that he wants to understand himself, grabbing Victor to listen to his heartbeat and then clutching him grotesquely to his own chest, showing his creator that he, too, has a beating heart.
Those pounding heartbeats are just one easy element of the show's exceptional staging. Katie Menke, working with composer Eric Burlingame, knocks it out the park with her sound design for the show. The clangs and mechanical thumping of the Industrial Revolution that inspired "Frankenstein" open the action and echo throughout, underscoring the impact of civilization's headlong embrace of factories and technology with little thought of their effects on humankind.
One person who does see the results is young Victor Frankenstein, played by Jonas Barranca as a somewhat cowardly idealist with illusions of godhood. He wants to ride the "juggernaut of science" to a solution for all industry's problems, to build a tireless, unthinking golem to replace the dead-eyed workers in his father's steel mill.
But almost as soon as he reanimates the body he has built, Frankenstein rejects it, seeing his "dream of the perfect specimen" turned into a "living nightmare." It is a jarring reaction. Apparently he expected his new man to be born fully capable of picking up a top hat and cane and singing "Puttin' on the Ritz."
From there the play follows two separate tracks, the downward spiral of Victor's guilt and fear, and the determined journey of the Creature as he tries to overcome his origins.
The most hopeful scenes of the play come when it turns back to nature and humanity, in the form of a small camp of revolutionaries who adopt the Creature, give him a name and teach him to speak and read. Unlike Victor, the poor workers played by John Profeta, Adam Yellen and Marisa Caruso are willing to give the Creature a chance, at least up until they discover what he is.
Meanwhile, Victor tries to put his work behind him. Back with his father (Gerry Maher), little brother (Joel Fesmire) and adopted cousin Elizabeth (Candice Kogut), he vacillates between explaining himself and accepting his failings.
It's hard to care. Victor's dilemmas pale compared with those of the Creature, as do his sins by the time it is all done. For two centuries people have made the mistake of calling the creation Frankenstein, the monster. It turns out that they were only partly right. In the end, Frankenstein may be a monster, but he also is the man.
World premiere of David Oliver's adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel of bringing a creature to life through science, with tragic results. Through Feb. 12 at Road Less Traveled Theater, 500 Pearl St. Tickets: 629-3069 or www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.
Story topics: theater review