REVIEW: FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS

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Ignoring all of its other virtues, Mac Rogers’ play Frankenstein Upstairs certainly deserves special commendation for including such an intriguing program note:

Frankenstein Upstairs is set in Brooklyn in the present day.  As the action takes place in the same fictional universe as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the novel and its adaptations do not exist in this play, and the name “Frankenstein” holds no associations for the other characters.

I have been talking in a recent series of “Pre-Game” articles this week about how I believe Rogers’ stock and trade as a playwright and science fiction author can best be measured in his inventive use of perspective.  Here, the way the characters’ point of view differs from our own is so important that it demands a special notice in the program; it even gets billing ABOVE the note letting the audience know that there will be an intermission, which – let’s be honest – is just about the most important thing there is to know going into any indie theatre production.

Telling though it may be, no mere program note could so easily encapsulate a marvelous mash-up like Frankenstein Upstairs, which uses a light naturalistic touch in its depiction of contemporary relationships, but pulls no genre punches in its sampling of elements from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.  The seminal novel, and its subsequent film adaptations, introduced the world to Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a prototypical mad scientist who defied nature itself by giving life to a hideous creature made from dead organic material.

Frankenstein Upstairs featuring Diana Oh and Autumn Dornfeld - Photo credit Deborah Alexander
Frankenstein Upstairs featuring Diana Oh and Autumn Dornfeld – Photo credit Deborah Alexander

As Rogers’  title suggests, the play transplants the weird gothic science experiments of Dr. Frankenstein into a Brooklyn apartment building, where the frequent power surges are causing blackouts for the neighbors.  Sophie (Autumn Dornfeld) and Marisol (Diana Oh), who live downstairs, are apt poster children for the 21st century.  These two hipster social media designers are also lovers, and have recently merged their businesses and lives into one apartment where consistent wi-fi and electricity are crucial. (Sandy Yalkin’s posh, airy scenic design is gorgeous as always, but is there really that much square footage in DUMBO?)  Just as Sophie, who is more Type A than the goofball Marisol, is screwing up her courage to confront their upstairs neighbor about the power outages, the reclusive Victoria Frankenstein appears at their door.  This female Dr. Frankenstein later claims to be the great-great-great granddaughter of the original back in the 19th Century.  But Vic, as she demands to be called, seems a creature from another time herself as embodied by the enthralling Kristen Vaughan, with her chilly Swiss accent, her awkwardly formal speech, and her killer white lab coat/knee-high boot ensemble.  She offers sincere apologies for the blackouts and promises to buy a separate generator to power her mysterious “work.”

Frankenstein Upstairs featuring Kristen Vaughan - Photo credit Deborah Alexander
Frankenstein Upstairs featuring Kristen Vaughan – Photo credit Deborah Alexander

Charmed by her exotic oddness and intrigued by what she might be up to, the ladies downstairs make it a point to befriend the lonely scientist.  We soon meet another of their friends, Taylor, a charismatic blind author played with maximum snark by Rob Maitner.  Taylor is also their biggest client, a cheeky gay man who writes heterosexual erotic fantasy under a female pseudonym.  Sophie and Marisol help to corroborate his alter ego through a ubiquitous web presence.  All four characters converge towards the end of Act One, in a wildly entertaining scene where Sophie, Marisol, and Taylor perform a “SWOT” analysis on Vic.  The SWOT matrix – which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats – is a business-planning tool that Sophie often inflicts upon Marisol and Taylor.  To see the classic Frankenstein corpse-animating experiment hilariously run through a new-agey corporate strategy ringer further emphasizes Rogers’ strength for shifting the focus on familiar material.

Act One concludes with a major turning point that is both startling and necessary, if a little abrupt.  For Act Two, I’ll try to remain as vague as possible to avoid spoiling the deft unspooling of events, but ultimately we all know that there’s only one item that Dr. Frankenstein needs to acquire before she can conclusively test her theories on bringing a dead human body back to life; how she acquires it and from whom I will not reveal.  After obtaining said object, the infamous procedure goes according to Frankensteinian protocol thanks to Stephanie Cox-Williams’ creepy, but grounded special effects design.  Sure, director Jordana Williams also includes a few modern flourishes (this Dr. F. uses an i-Pad) in her tidy staging of the iconic scene of the Frankenstein mythos, but otherwise the requisite actions all take place: fluids are pumped, necks are bolted, craniums are cleaved open, electricity voltage knobs are toggled, the windows flash with lightning, and yes, something is triumphantly declared to be “aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!”

Frankenstein Upstairs featuring Diana Oh and Kristen Vaughan Photo credit Deborah Alexander

But after this splendid excursion into the sci-fi world of Dr. Frankenstein’s cybernetic implants and arcane chemistry, Rogers courageously keeps his story downstairs, where the ethical and emotional fallout of creating a biological chimera wreaks havoc on the all of the characters’ lives and relationships.  We come to learn that Frankenstein, who essentially moves into the ladies’ apartment to tend to the creature’s medical needs, cares deeply for her new friends and hopes that the experience will draw them closer.  With her life’s work a success, Vic feels, in her own off-kilter way, normal for the first time.  Again, perspective is everything.  Frankenstein’s version of normal still qualifies as incredibly weird for Sophie and Marisol, who grow increasingly more uncomfortable as they continue to adjust to the new status quo – which is hard enough considering the new status quo includes, you know, a science monster.

Dornfeld, Oh, and Vaughan navigate this later material masterfully.  Ms. Dornfeld’s balanced, diplomatic confrontation with Vic on the subject of the scientist’s too-frequent visits feels just right – as does an awkward dance of seduction she attempts on Oh earlier on.  We can often see why the frenetic Marisol would aggravate Sophie in an Odd Couple sort of way, but thanks to the tenacious devotion and manic comic timing Ms. Oh’s lends the character, we also understand why Sophie would love her.  Vaughan, who played the heartfelt mother Amelia in The Honeycomb Trilogy, truly surprised me with the level of villainy she reached in an icy monologue towards the end, during which she assaults both Sophie and Marisol in intensely disturbing ways.  Yet Vaughan anchors the play as the complicated Vic, who is equally endearing and sinister, but could never truly be called monstrous herself.

And that’s coming from someone for whom the name “Frankenstein” holds all kinds of associations.

Presented by Gideon Productions at The Secret Theatre 4402 23rd Street, Long Island City. June 20–30. (866) 811-4111, or http://www.gideonth.com

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