Breathing life into the 'Frankenstein' set: 'It's alive!'

Jason Sherwood may be designing one of the largest coffins in stage history. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

By Douglas Langworthy

DCPA Literary Director

You may be wondering how the DCPA Theatre Company’s new adaptation of Frankenstein, written by the prominent British playwright Nick Dear, differs from the Frankensteins we have grown up with. (The 1931 Boris Karloff version comes to mind.)

The answer is that you might not want to brush up on the classic black-and-white horror film before you come to the theatre.

For one thing, Dear’s Creature speaks, and speaks fluidly at that, while the Karloff monster communicates with mere grunts. While the film Creature is mute, Dear stays much truer to Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel, serving up a man/beast who converses, has a soul and keeps trying to figure out who he is and where he came from. This seems acceptable for a Creature whose creator wants to play God.

To express himself, both Shelley and Dear have the Creature painstakingly acquire language, from observing a peasant family and then reading books, primarily Paradise Lost. That epic poem’s portrayal of man and woman being expelled from Eden touches the Creature deeply, feeling himself excluded from human society. It also inspires him to desire a female companion for himself. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, on the other hand, behaves without compassion, recoiling repeatedly from the Creature to whom he has given life.

Dear’s Creature spends less time destroying (although there is plenty of that, be forewarned) and more time philosophizing: “Ideas batter me like hailstones. Questions but no answers. Who am I? Where am I from? Do I have a family?”

Stage adaptations of novels are invariably cinematic. Dear’s play alternates from indoors to outdoors and frequently out in the extremes of nature

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

DCPA Theatre Company Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood‘s set has to facilitate multiple locations. “The script is very cinematic and calls on swift transitions to very different kinds of environments,” he said. “We have to move from an abstract moment, to a real basement laboratory, to the outside in rain, to a street, to a forest in a matter of moments. I love the challenge of a play that demands a lot from physical space.”

Challenges indeed: Dr. Frankenstein confronts the Creature on top of Mount Blanc, he travels to the Orkney Islands to create a female for his Creature, and at the end of the story, he pursues his creation across the barren Arctic.

But even though the play’s many different locations may make it cinematic in scope, Sherwood says the artistic team, led by director Sam Buntrock (Ed, Downloaded), stayed far away from the standard film versions of Frankenstein to keep their creative slates clean. “We really wanted to depart from the typical visual associations that people have with the Frankenstein story,” he said. “So we didn’t really look to any of the films for more than context and an understanding of how we think of the story in American culture today.” 

Sherwood says the world of the play is based on an intersection between natural and man-made elements. “The entire stage floor is wet mud, with a huge hole at the center, like the sight of a recent burial. I don’t want to give much more away than that. But we use the elements (earth, rain, wind, fire) in some exciting ways.

“We’re using a stage deck of wet, earthy mud as our base layer. We’ll be using various automated elevators to create different interior spaces. The entire back of the stage is framed with an enormous drop that looks like jagged rock, or the surface of a body of water (when lit particularly). We’ll also be using live rain.” 

When asked if this telling of the story will provide some frights, Sherwood promises “there will be some very jarring, surprising, thrilling moments in our production. Particularly the way the characters are going to interact with the space, and how the story is going to clip along at such a fast pace. I think there’s some real potential for some scare factor.” 

Scare factor. So here at last is something all of the versions of Shelley’s novel have in common. It was the first example of the horror story after all.

Pictured above: The emerging, massive ‘Frankenstein’ set designed by Jason Sherwood is coming to life for its first public performance on Sept. 30. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Photo gallery: More on the making of Frankenstein in Denver

'Frankenstein' in Denver
Photos from the making of ‘Frankenstein’ in Denver. To see more, click the forward arrow in the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

: Ticket information

Frankenstein• Sept. 30-Oct. 30
• Stage Theatre
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Oct. 23
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

Previous NewsCenter coverage:

A Frankenstein ‘that will make The Bible look subtle
How Danny Boyle infused new life into Frankenstein
Casting set for Frankenstein and The Glass Menagerie
Introducing DCPA Theatre Company’s 2016-17 season artwork
Kent Thompson on The Bard, The Creature and the soul of his audience
2016-17 season announcement

Follow the DCPA on social media @DenverCenter and through the DCPA News Center.

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