Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 8 / 23 February 2017

Monster mash


San Francisco Ballet's Frankenstein, a co-production with London's Royal Ballet, had its West Coast premiere. Photo: Erik Tomasson
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It was a dark and stormy night inside the Opera House, with rain streaking across the scrim as the orphan girl knocked at the door of the Frankenstein mansion. If you've never read the book but only know The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you'll know that electricity is going to be in the air, and indeed it was. The house was packed for the West Coast premiere of San Francisco Ballet's spectacular Frankenstein (a co-production with London's Royal Ballet). We paid our dues as the long first act filled in more story points than we needed, but by the third act the show had found its stride and moved to a powerful climax that left me with a strong sympathy for the outcast. I kept hearing the lines of Blake's poem, "I'll be like him, and he will then love me." The whole audience, 3,000 people, rose to their feet and cheered like mad, loudest for Vitor Luiz, who'd played the monster. We all felt the pity of it, the loneliness of a person brought into the world and given no help with the big questions: "Who am I? Where am I? What's going on? What should I do?"

But these questions only emerged at the end, when he came into his own as a character. Along the way, the big question was, "O my God, what have I done?" Worst of all was when Victor Frankenstein realizes that yes, in his operating room he has brought a creature to life, but he's never thought about his responsibilities.

Mary Shelley's story is 200 years old this year, and though it's become a folk tale, it began life as the product of the most ardent liberal spirits of that age. Shelley was the daughter of political revolutionaries, William Godwin and Mary Wallstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and her fable has a solid intellectual foundation in the most progressive thought of that day. In fact, it's completely up-to-date. Frankenstein deals with issues that bring the mind to a halt: When does life begin? What does it mean to be human? What are the responsibilities of human beings to each other, and of those who create life to the newly born?

Of course, it's also a fantasy of scientific experimenting gone too far. It could not be Frankenstein without an operating theater, students, a ferocious professor, and a Rube Goldberg contraption that's hella fun to watch as the gases bubble, the electricity sparks. The galvanizing process that makes dead men's limbs unite to animate a new person has a visual impact as big as that of Jurassic Park, and in the designs of John MacFarlane, this production has achieved it, especially in the desolation his fantastic backdrops evoke. We got a taste of the total-theater craftsmanship that the Royal Ballet is been famous for. They've always used the look of the show to set the tone for how you're to understand it. The neo-Romantic music is by Lowell Liebermann, who's learned from Prokofiev, Bellini and others how to tell a story, and when to slow down and dwell on emotions. The choreographer Liam Scarlett delivers in broad strokes a meditation of what it is to be human. When he took his bow, Scarlett got the biggest roar of applause of the night.

The best choreography comes in the poignant duets for Victor (Joseph Walsh) and his fiancé (Frances Chung). Again and again, she has to rescue him from despair. The thought of what he's done paralyzes Victor, and he becomes stricken with remorse. She draws him out, and the dancing is made of her forcing him, gently, to partner her, to support her. The technique of the ballet becomes a conduit for powerful feeling as she makes him come out to meet her and gives his life back to him.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Vitor Luiz in choreographer Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein. Photo: Erik Tomasson

The last act is a single ballroom scene. Dancing at their wedding, with wonderful, sweeping dances for the corps de ballet, it is really a picture of Victor's mind, with fascinating interventions of people who've died already, and by the real monster who's still alive and seeking contact with him. The more powerfully he's rejected, the more viciously he retaliates. After Victor pulls out his Derringer and shoots himself, nobody is left alive onstage but the monster he created, who's now got nobody left in this world who knows him.

It's hard to judge the piece upon only one sighting. The transitions from storytelling to dancing are awkward and puzzling. The whole thing needs editing. Scarlett is young at this, and has overflowed with ideas, some of which aren't necessary. In particular, the Act I brothel scene, where the med students go blow off steam, adds nothing except wonderful opportunities for the corps dancers to dance. Victor's friend (Angelo Greco) is peculiarly silly, and nobody gives him any respect. Why? Still, these problems do not matter much, and the parts that are good are very good indeed.

The best thing is that the dancers have given themselves to the project completely. They are profoundly invested, and seem to have been dancing these roles all their lives. All deserve praise, especially the child dancer Max Behrman-Rosenberg, who plays Victor Frankenstein's little brother, perfect in the role. The housekeeper (Anita Paciotti) and her daughter (Sasha de Sola) are a necessary part of the story, but the mother's harshness never feels fully explained.

Among the fellow students, barmaids, townsfolk, Sean Bennett, Diego Cruz, Isabella DeVivo, Benjamin Freemantle, Stephen Morse, Miles Thatcher, Henry Sidford, and Lonnie Weeks all stood out, especially Francisco Mungamba. The dancers made the show, as so often they do. What a great ensemble-repertory company they are.


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