Theatre Memphis and the New Moon Theatre Company at TheatreWorks have both gone into the business of creature-building, producing two very different takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In fact, regular reenactments of Rocky Horror at the Evergreen Theatre notwithstanding, one would be hard-pressed to imagine more radically different interpretations of the classic creeper. Theatre Memphis gives us Young Frankenstein, a big-budget musical extravaganza adapted by master parodist Mel Brooks and comic actor Gene Wilder from their satirical 1974 film of the same name. New Moon presents a more modest staging of the old horror as imagined by contemporary playwright Bo List, formerly of Memphis, now living and teaching school in Lexington, Kentucky.
"For me it all goes back to being a kid and loving Halloween," says Frankenstein director Gene Elliott, who also staged Bug and Look Away. "I used to love it. But I got older and stopped enjoying all the parties as much." For Elliott, all the horror shows are an opportunity to get back in touch with that lost sense of fun. More, they often give him a chance to explore the same themes that attract him to less ghastly forms of entertainment.
"Just how far is a person willing to go?" he asks, considering the character of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who was only seeking a cure for the one great universal affliction: death. "Instead, he does this really evil thing."
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"Things changed after Death of a Salesman," Elliott says, recalling the Marler Stone-directed production of the Arthur Miller classic that in 2011 solidified a legitimacy the company had earned over and over again. The Frankenstein cast showcases the talents of local heavy-hitters like Jim Palmer and John Rone, with Greg Boller following up his menacing turn in Bug by taking on Shelley's creature.
Kinon Keplinger, a versatile character actor able to disappear into a meaty role, is throwing himself body and soul into Dr. Frankenstein.
"I truly love this kind of role because you can see the evolution of a man who is trying to do something good for mankind, and he ends up losing his mind, heart, and soul in the process. It's an emotional roller coaster, not only for me as an actor but also the audience," Keplinger says.
This new Frankenstein represents a kind of second life for playwright Bo List, a former general director for Germantown Community Theatre. When it opens in Memphis, his Frankenstein adaptation will have been produced five times. It is the first of his plays to receive that kind of attention, and he hopes it won't be the last.
In creating his version of Frankenstein, List pays homage to both the story's literary and cinematic legacies. "The book doesn't go into a lot of detail about the creation," List says to emphasize just how immutably Frankenstein's subsequent lives have stamped our imaginations. "The lightning in the sky, that's all Hollywood," he says.
"You've got to have Frankenstein's lab," Elliott says, expressing a rare moment of genuine envy for Theatre Memphis' significantly bigger budget. Elliott caught Young Frankenstein in its opening weekend and longed to recreate the bubbling colored liquids and ladders of man-made lightning.
"It looked so good," he moans, lavishing praise on the musical.
For all of its name recognition Young Frankenstein is still a risky choice for a regional theater to produce. And not just because of its enormous cast and challenging scenic requirements. Although it was adapted to the stage by its original authors, the question lingers: Is it any good?
Following the extraordinary commercial and critical success of Mel Brooks' musical version of his film The Producers, a Young Frankenstein adaptation seemed like a slam dunk. But the show was coolly received on Broadway, and the subsequent tour could be generously described as lukewarm. Because so much of what makes the film great has less to do with Frankenstein specifically than the look and feel of Universal's 1930s-era monster movies, something was lost in the show's translation from silver screen to busy stage populated with colorful characters we love in black and white.
Marques Brown, who turns in a frantic and very funny performance as Victor Frankenstein's grandson Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-un-steen), acknowledges that previous incarnations of the musical have had their problems. "Oh, we know," he says. "And we say, 'Come see our production anyway.'"
Brown's memorable performance in a role absolutely owned by Gene Wilder is one of several reasons why Theatre Memphis' Young Frankenstein succeeds where other productions flounder. The main reason, however, is director Cecelia Wingate's love of the ridiculous and her attention to the stupidest of details.
Wingate dug deep into the Mel Brooks catalog, borrowing some of her favorite gags from a variety of films. "He loves anachronism," Wingate says, pleased with the modern-day airport screener she has placed onstage, running a metal detector all over passengers on the boat to Transylvania. "And it's 1936, of course," she chortles.
Rob Hanford's challenges in playing Igor are especially daunting. No matter how much he mugs as the mad doctor's hunchbacked lab assistant, nothing can live up to the memory of a Marty Feldman close-up. So Hanford doesn't try to compete and uses the iconic role as an opportunity to showcase a level of physical control that is unmatched locally.
Although Young Frankenstein is long on humor and short on horror, there is some genuine terror onstage every night. Justin Asher, who is well over 6 feet tall before you put him in his Frankenstein boots, is scared to death of dancing.
"The thought of tapping [in the famous "Puttin' on the Ritz" number] almost scared me away entirely," says Asher, who imagines the creature as a cross between a "not so bright puppy and a top-heavy toddler." "I'm so glad it didn't. They don't write many roles with giants in mind, so this was a dream show for me."
Asher, whose performance is absolutely one of the best things about Young Frankenstein, is also a playwright and horror fan. And the New Moon Theatre company, always on the lookout for new and edgy material, is producing his scary play Haint in May.
Frankenstein is at TheatreWorks October 25th-November 10th. Young Frankenstein is at Theatre Memphis through November 3rd.