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Monster Mash

by Paul Parish

Wei Wang as the Creature in Liam Scarlett's 'Frankenstein'
Wei Wang as the Creature in Liam Scarlett's 'Frankenstein'  (Source:Erik Tomasson)

The atmosphere was electric in the Opera House last Thursday for San Francisco Ballet's revival of "Frankenstein." The crackle in the air recalled that of last year's premiere, when the house was completely sold out and tickets could not be had for the Western Hemisphere premiere of Liam Scarlett's ballet. Scarlett is the youngest-ever choreographer in Residence for the Royal Ballet (London), who had co-commissioned the piece with SFB.

The audience skewed young. I can't remember seeing so many fresh faces and eagerly darting people in the lobby and the aisles. Perhaps the high-tech theme attracted techies, perhaps the popularity of the movie versions encouraged younger folk to try a crossover? In any case, it was thrilling to feel such anticipation. As the lights went down, the sound of a heartbeat emerged from the orchestra in deep, pulsing notes, and the front-cloth imagery began to morph. Against a background of blood, a bone-white skull and vertebrae began to grow, to add new body parts. On the edges of the screen, annotative scribbled lines appeared as marginalia. This was our introduction to John MacFarlane's brilliant stage designs, which never ceased to create the perfect scene for the action we were about to see.

Everyone knows the story, of course, and in so many different versions. What's most distinctive here is the look of the scene. The monster looks the part, Vitor Luiz is a noble savage hideously scarred, but strangely beautiful. He completely supplanted memories of Boris Karloff, which is a colossal achievement in itself. The dark and stormy night, the Frankenstein mansion, the operating theater, the pastoral garden-scene in which the monster kills the little boy, the surreal ballroom in the last act ("I'll be with you on your wedding-night") - all of these are realized in brilliant detail. Most of all, the grisly back-alley scene in which the sweet servant-girl (Julia Rowe, superb in the role), who's been framed with the murder and condemned by a turbulent mob, is hanged, twitching. This is the second-act curtain, and it is gut-wrenching.


Max Behrman-Rosenberg as Victor s young brother, and Wei Wang as the Creature in Liam Scarlett's "Frankenstein". Photo: Erik Tomasson  

MacFarlane's scenery contains all this, and carries the action past innumerable bits of weird social interaction. Although the solos and duets are all good, some superb, still, it must be said, there's a great deal of malarkey for the corps de ballet, where suddenly the servants in the background of a scene start dancing brilliantly when there's no call for it. The big group dance in the operating theater, when the nurses cavort their bell jars and lift them aloft like Clara with her Nutcracker, or the party scene when blindfolded guests begin leaping about the stage, hurling themselves in large trajectories, to give only two examples - these violate poetic faith, and are doubtless the reason the London critics trounced the ballet when it premiered there. In Scarlett's defense, these group dances are exhilarating.

The duets are thrilling, romantic things, whether it's love (Victor and Elizabeth: Aaron Robison and Frances Chung) or fury (Robison, with Vitor Luis brilliant as the monster), or both (Luis and Max Behrman-Rosenberg, the little boy who, blindfolded, dances happily with the monster until the veil comes off, and then, terrified, provokes the monster to kill him). Robison's made a romantic, indeed orgasmic fantasia out of the actual creation of the monster, with sweeping adagio pirouettes, floating, suspended moments of ecstasy as new ideas came into his head for how to bring this scientific miracle to consummation. He began by climbing on top of the table, lying down on the body, and rose to new heights from there. There's a wonderful truth-to-life in this: scientists working with CRISPR technology to turn off genes, to split DNA, to create new forms of life in real life right now have recorded in their diaries the overwhelming ecstatic thrill of turning their ideas into reality. No wonder it's called conception. The stage scenery is exploding with fireworks as Robison plants his seed. Robison interprets Victor's subsequent inaction not as remorse but as PTSD. He danced last week as a visiting artist, replacing injured Joseph Walsh. He learned the role last year when he was a member of SFB, but now dances in London with the English National Ballet.

The dancers give themselves to this with no reservations, and their confidence can carry the day. Scarlett is one of those artists, like D.H. Lawrence, where the imagination is tremendous and some passages are great, the ideas are huge, the passions grounded in heart's truth, but -. Still, with most of the audience, Scarlett got his horses over the bridge. Outstanding dancers were Jennifer Stahl as the housekeeper, Rowe as her daughter, Victor's friend (Angelo Greco), and as servants, fellow med students, townspeople, the following: Nathaniel Remez, Kimberly Marie Olivier, Henry Sidford, and the wonderful Myles Thatcher and Lonnie Weeks.

"Frankenstein" will end its run before this notice appears. The next program, an all-Jerome Robbins evening, is already selling fast without being advertised much. That program will feature his first big hit, "Fancy Free." Also on that program will be "The Cage," a nightmare of insect-like copulation, with the bride killing the groom after the orgasm, and the heavenly "Other Dances," perhaps his most beautiful dance set to Chopin. "Opus 19/The Dreamer" will round out that program, which runs March 20-25.


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