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Theatre review: Frankenstein is stylistically confused

Stylistically the Ninja Pirates Theatre Society production of Frankenstein is confused, but its saving grace is a monster that is at times as scary as hell.

The Ninja Pirates Theatre Society presents Victor Gialanella's Frankenstein.

The Ninja Pirates Theatre Society presents Victor Gialanella’s Frankenstein on stage at Granville Island’s Waterfront Theatre through November 3, 2013.

Adapted for the stage by Victor Gialanella from Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel, this is the same Frankenstein that opened and closed the same night on Broadway in 1981; it takes a certain chutzpah to take on a show with such a pedigree.

Ironically though where the Broadway version of Gialanella’s Frankenstein was criticized for its lavish special effects getting in way of story, in the Ninja Pirates Theatre Society staging director Anthony Shim goes minimalistic with a spare nearly all-white design.

While at times an eerie juxtaposition against the horror story, the design aesthetic was ultimately confusing and took much of the focus away from the central plot of Shelley’s novel.  Adding to that confusion were some very odd music choices from Dan Blackburn and Bryce Hodgson.

One element that did work was the use of shadows cast against the large screens bordering the stage, but where one would expect those shadows to create images of terror, they often time only served to augment the entrance of a character.  It would have been much more exciting visually if those same images somehow morphed into the horrific characters Shim was suggesting existed beyond Frankenstein’s monster.

Despite its confusing design, that frankly at times felt more Kabuki than Victorian, Brendan Taylor manages a believably scary portrayal of Frankenstein’s creation.  Helped by the straight-forward presentation of the creature with its scars, bruises and tattered clothing (one of the few costumes that was not all white), Taylor makes the most of his character’s search for answers.  James Pizzinato as the mad doctor is at his best in his interactions with Taylor.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare so well, but much of that comes from Shim’s decision to have them pose at every turn.  While perhaps a nod to the proper Victorian sensibility of the time, it felt forced, many times awkward and the actors did not always remember.  It was only in those moments where this idea is forgotten that this cast excelled, with no better example than Morgan Taylor Campbell’s terrific portrayal of the young nanny who is hanged for the murder of Frankenstein’s brother.

Surprisingly the opening night audience found a great deal of humour in this production, especially in act one, but this was not a nervous laughter from tension and anxiety which made it even more confusing.

In a recent interview with The Province newspaper, director and producer Anthony Shim claimed Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein as his “favourite riff on the story”.  With Young Frankenstein now a stage musical, perhaps that is the version Shim and his Ninja Pirates should undertake.

Frankenstein

By Victor Gialanella.  Adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley.  Directed by Anthony Shim.  A Ninja Pirates Theatre Society presentation.  On stage at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island through November 3, 2013.  Visit http://ninjapiratestheatre.com for tickets and information.

Mark Robins on Google+

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