- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

For a Gothic good time, you cannot do better than Neal Bell’s harrowing, freakish “Monster,” a free-form adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein.”

Of course, you have to be a certain kind of person to fully appreciate the extremes and deep-purple emotions at work in Olney’s production, directed with audacity by Jim Petosa. The kind, say, who pre-orders the latest Anne Rice novel on Amazon.com.

Those of the crushed velvet Goth sensibility will no doubt swoon to the high-strung histrionics of “Monster,” which is both disturbingly erotic and almost absurdly romantic.

Audience members of a more buttoned-down persuasion might be put off by the play’s excesses (in one scene, the Monster asks why his creator gave him genitalia) and the swampy, delirious tone of the piece.

But, if you are willing to go along for the creepy ride, you’ll get plenty of hair-raising scares and some food for thought as well, since Mr. Bell’s play touches on ethical issues like human cloning and, most important, taking responsibility for what we create.

“Monster” is similar to Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in that the Creature (Christopher Lane) is not given a criminal brain. He is an innocent, a horrible babe who latches onto his creator, Victor Frankenstein (Jeffries Thaiss), the minute he sees him. Angry at being born and made of piecemeal parts, the Creature bellows about pain and wanting to go home in a graveyard voice that slices through you like a blade.

Victor is a hypersensitive and deranged young man who has been experimenting with re-creating “that spark of life” ever since he sacrificed his pet cat (Will Gartshore, rubbing himself against Mr. Thaiss while dilating on whether cats have souls) to science as a boy. He finally succeeds in trumping death. So, what does he do? Panic.

Playing God, it turns out, has its price, and Victor decides to abandon the Creature on a hilltop. Bad move. The Creature begins to learn — he even reads the Bible and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” — and becomes more acutely aware of his aloneness, his hideousness. Not even his creator, his God and his mother both, wants to be around him.

The Creature — instead of being capable of only rage and violence as in so many film adaptations of “Frankenstein” — becomes a monstrous teacher to Victor. By murdering the people Victor loves: his lifelong sweetheart Elizabeth (Anne Bowles), his devoted friend Clerval (Paul Morella) and his younger brother William (Mr. Gartshore), the Creature shows his creator — and us — the tragic consequences of abandoning unfinished what we’ve made, whether a monster or child.

Deeper and richer than a simple warning against tampering with nature, “Monster” is a meditation on abandonment and alienation. Mr. Thaiss as Victor strikes a fine balance between hysteria and romantic obsession, and he is surprisingly sensual for a man who has given his life up for science, especially in his tormented dealings with Elizabeth and the Creature.

Mr. Lane is nothing less than extraordinary as the Creature. The scene where he is hauled into life with gruesome howls and groans is truly scary without being gory or explicit. He shreds your nerves with the jerky manipulations of his body and his voice. He makes the Creature not a homicidal maniac, but rather an innocent, bewildered and bedeviled by his terrifying, aching need.

Miss Bowles is a Gothic novel come to life as the love-tossed Elizabeth, who mirrors Shelley in her fears surrounding childbirth. James Slaughter plays Victor’s droll, world-weary Father with arched-brow perfection, and Mr. Gartshore expertly pulls off playing a snarling dog, a philosophy-spouting cat and the breathtakingly vulnerable William.

While “Monster” is odd and intriguing, at times the dialogue is so florid it would make the Vampire Lestat blush, and Mr. Bell has a tendency to veer between the crimson prose of the horror story and a self-mocking irony more suited to contemporary characters.

He should go all the way and make “Monster” a dark fantasy of the most feverish imagination. A play like this belongs in the extremes, in the shadows where pain is exquisite.

***

WHAT: “Monster” by Neal Bell, adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein”

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Through Aug. 10

TICKETS: $15-$35

PHONE: 301/924-3400 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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