“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils,” Mary Shelley wrote, as she put quill to paper to begin the novel that was to become “Frankenstein.” And so it was on a Thursday night that I strode to the University Theater to attend Manual Cinema’s own interpretation of this now-iconic tale. Stitching together an intricate performance that included silhouette projections, puppetry, silent film, live acting and live music, the 65-minute runtime of Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” left its audience breathless with the complex beauty of its storytelling and the talent of its cast.
The production featured the theater company’s first all-female puppeteering group, as I learned after the show from co-founder Sarah Fornace, who played both Frankenstein and Shelley. This female-led cast took the familiar story of “Frankenstein” and spun its tale of creation and loss by drawing parallels between the tragic life of the author and the narrative of her work. The first third of the show focused solely on Mary Shelley and her time as a young mother who lost her daughter, Clara, less than two weeks after her birth. Haunted by her daughter’s passing, Shelley claimed in letters that continual nightmares of reviving her child eventually led to the dream which inspired her to write “Frankenstein.” Shelley wrote the novel while she was still processing the concepts of life and death after being violently estranged from the life that she herself had created. Most adaptations of the novel choose to focus on the story as an isolated fiction, but Manual Cinema used visual and sonic cues throughout the performance to remind the audience of the significance of the author’s life in shaping her story. Even a gesture as small as an affectionate touch on the nose translated between the biographical and narrative portions of the performance as a display of love and longing for connection which inevitably became fractured through death.
The expert use of black-and-white film, well-placed sound design and sparse, silent narration drew all attention to the evolution of the visual performance. Beneath the large screen on which the narrative was projected live, the stage had been separated into three major sections that exposed the construction of the show, the work most productions would keep behind the scenes. The audience watched characters and sets continually shifting styles in order to emphasize different perspectives — from shadow puppets and silhouetted actors engaging via the light of overhead projectors, to silent film with written dialogue, to an 18-inch cloth puppet of the Monster closely filmed on a small stage. Just as Frankenstein’s Monster was a singular body made of unique parts, the magic of Manual Cinema’s performance was witnessing the actors and puppeteers — many of whom were one and the same — fluidly shift from one medium to the next as they danced around the set. Puppeteer Myra Su informed me that the live music, performed by four musicians positioned to the front of the stage, was a key component in keeping the cast on beat throughout the show, and that they had collectively learned to sync their breath with the sounds in order to time their transitions and avoid running into each other.
The flurry of the puppeteers’ cohesive movement was a show unto itself, made even more spectacular upon realizing just how much of the play’s visual effects were purely based on hand motions — flipping down slides, seamlessly changing out puppets, waving fingers to create wind or dim lights, among other things. Much of the visual base of Frankenstein relied upon an organized stack of more than 500 separate slides and shadow puppets, all of which were used only once per show. Many duplicate puppets allowed the puppeteers to reuse visuals without having to search for them again in the dark clutter of the stage. Even the most intricate of details within the performance were made from paper. The appearance of rain and snow were caused by long punctured pieces of paper dragged slowly over the projector to create fluid falling motion. Transitions between scenes and the fade in and out of brief bits of text looked as clean on the center screen as effects that would be created on a computer in post-production editing, yet these were simply the result of actors slowly lifting slides to or from a projector’s light to create a blurring effect. Alongside the simple magic of the show’s low-fi production, modern technology — in the form of MIDI keyboard-controlled percussion and a multitude of small cameras and monitors — blended the sights and sounds of the performance so cleanly it felt almost impossible that I was watching the film being crafted before my very eyes.
Although the short runtime greatly simplified the tale of the original “Frankenstein,” the story shined in the unique ways in which it allowed Shelley’s emotion and desires to peek through her fiction. It was a story about love, or the desire of such, and the consequence of abandonment. Like many “Frankenstein” adaptations, Manual Cinema’s variation of the Monster never became the intellectual being that it does in the novel. Fitting with the silent film style, it lacked the voice to reckon with its desire for human connection and the fear that it created with its mere presence, which ultimately led to deadly consequences. Instead of having the Monster kill by choice, as it does in the original story, the deaths which occurred in Manual Cinema’s performance were entirely by accident, which cast the Monster in an even more innocent light. The infantile desire of the Monster to be loved by its creator and the desire for the author to reconnect with her deceased daughter culminated in the final scene. The lead actress changed from Frankenstein to Shelley one last time, pushed aside the plush monster’s puppeteers and leaned down to cradle the dying monster close to her face the same way she had done with her child. The show ended with one last affectionate touch on the nose between author and Monster — a cathartic closure as much as it was a literal one.
Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” is in itself a love letter to both the life and work of Mary Shelley and the legacy that her novel has created. Produced as a tribute to the novel’s 200th anniversary, Fornace told me that the original run time for the production during its debut last November was almost double what it is currently, giving much more time to Shelley’s life and especially her relationship to her half-sister Frances Imlay, whose early death deeply impacted Shelley. The story was cut for clarity, a process which Fornace admitted was like “ripping out entrails” in how painful it was. Still, she ultimately thinks that the decisions impacted the show for the better. Wandering around the stage after the performance, watching audience members young and old excitedly engaging with the puppeteers and set pieces, I couldn’t have agreed more. Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” offered a unique and accessible retelling of a classic tale, one that continued the novel’s tradition of questioning the consequence of creation, while also, through its intricate yet comprehensible production, inspiring its audience to do a little inventing of their own.
Rebecca Goldberg | firstname.lastname@example.org