FRANKENSTEIN reviewed

Feb 20 2020 Reviews · Theaterfour larksfrankensteinjesse rasmussenmary shelleymat sweeneymax baumgartensebastian peters-lazarothe wallis
by sam hall kaplan

Similar to the Gothic novel of the same title, which tells the horror story of the creation of a terrifying artificial man from parts of corpses, the stage play Frankenstein at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills takes fragments from the novel and author’s life to piece together a singular theatrical experience.

This Frankenstein is unquestionably serious experimental theater. It was created by Mat Sweeney (creation, staging), Sebastian Peters-Lazaro (design, choreography) and Jesse Rasmussen (libretto), who comprise the Four Larks and whose past efforts have included original, site specific productions at the Getty Villa and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

With the Four Larks you can expect the unexpected, and their disparate dramatic production at The Wallis’s intimate Lovelace Studio Theater is certainly is that.  The production’s serious subtext, according to the play’s notes, is to attempt in an “amalgamation of dynamic physical theater, live music and experiential design” to bring to life a “modern take that spotlights the dangers of unregulated technology.”

It is assisted by an enthusiastic, talented cast of twelve, most doubling as musicians, all limber and a few impressively acrobatic, bounding on an open stage, against a backdrop of flashing video screens.

But try as it may, by employing an imaginative array of dramaturgical stratagems including live music, dazzling designs, inspired choreography, inventive lighting and effects, this world-premiere production is cluttered and confused.

Frankenstein (Max Baumgarten) does not shock, amaze or definitely not amuse; rather, as riveting as his characterization is on a ghostly stage he bewilders. Trying to follow the action is a challenge, despite the familiar story of an experiment that goes tragically awry, brilliantly imagined 200 years ago in the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley and retold numerous times on stage and screen, as comedy as well as drama.

A problem is that much of the narrative is said to be taken from the novel itself, and the writings of the author’s friends and family, including the poetry of Shelley’s husband, Percy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The language is dated and the excerpts wordy, and frankly pretentious. And so, unfortunately, is the play.  The production may have merit for those interested in experimental theater.

Frankenstein | The Wallis | thru March 1


Sam Hall Kaplan is a cultural critic who in a maverick past has written for the NY Times, LA Times and Reuters. Books include The Dream Deferred and L.A. Lost and Found. His love of theater dates to his off-Broadway youth and being a gofer to the legendary Brooks Atkinson.

CLIMATE CHANGE, A PLAY AND A PLEA

The edgy drama “Earthquakes in London” proffers a vivid view of climate change and the human condition, topics that should be a paramount concern in our fragile Malibu, and certainly to all beyond.

 With this in mind, I reviewed the drama, pasted below, not incidentally wearing yet a new hat as the cultural critic of the widely respected and read artsmeme.com

Earthquakes in London | Rogue Machine Theatre | thru Mar 1

On our planet’s frightening social and political seismographic scale, and by any theatrical measure, “Earthquakes in London” is definitely a shaker, especially if climate change and the human condition concern you.

Now playing at the Electric Lodge in Venice, weekends through March 1, the ambitious, edgy Rogue Machine Theatre’s production demands the conviction and talents of those on and behind the stage, and the attention and apprehensions of the audience

Talk about being timely, what with the world’s increasingly freakish weather, witness the dreadful floods abroad and disastrous fires here and in Australia. And then, of course for us in California beyond the compromising of our fragile environmental safeguards by a twisted Trump administration, there is the constant threat of earthquakes. In London, too, one might add without divulging the play’s plot.

As the playwright Mike Bartlett has notably proffered in his final tragic scenes of death and divorce there is a hope for the future, however faint and fantastical. Though if so, for us worldly wizened it would be a victory over the reality of the planet today, its possible extinction and the denial by its mindless  leaders.

But the play must go on, and despite its dire predictions and backdrop of flickering montage of disasters, actually hints optimistically at a better, life affirming destiny, embodied naturally in a new born. And to think that the play was first performed a decade ago in the once and future land of angry young men speaks to the awe-inspiring prescience of art and the imposing imagination of Bartlett.

Kudos also to the moral commitment of Rogue Machine to stage the provocative production, which consists no less than 17 actors performing with professional confidence in some 90 parts careening about a segmented stage in an intimate non equity theatre.

This conglomeration could easily have been a daunting three hours, with a intermission, if not for the innovative co direction of Hollace Starr and John Perrin Flynn, who thankfully speed the action in well orchestrated short bursts of word plays in overlapping focused scenes in varying time frames.

Helping is the imaginative counterpoint of whimsical musical numbers one of the principal characters listens to over her earphones and is brought to life by the multi talented cast. Particularly rousing was the song and dance rendition of “I Am Not a Robot,” that punches up and sends the second act forward to its dramatic finale.

Yes, there is a story line, involving three contrasting and personally challenged sisters, convincingly portrayed by Ava Bogle, Anna Khaja and Taylor Shurte. (Also appreciated was Shurte’s dancing.) Weaving them together in a grating codependency are their individual clashes with an estranged father,

Though not very sympathetic, self absorbed and guilt ridden, the father is nonetheless insightful, and not incidentally has the best and most telling lines. It helps that they delivered with a riveting aplomb by a believable Ron Bottitta.

Some 60 years plus year ago the play “Look Back In Anger” by John Osborne offered a contrast to the then escapist theater scene with a blast of social realism. Born also of Britain, Bartlett’s “Earthquakes in London” just may be a harbinger of desperately needed environmental awareness, a sort of look forward in anger — and angst. 

Earthquakes in London | Rogue Machine Theatre | Electric Lodge | thru Mar 1


Cultural critic Sam Hall Kaplan is a distinguished print and broadcast journalist, author and teacher, who has pursued parallel careers as an urban designer and creative strategist. Maverick assignments have included design critic for the LA Times, metro reporter for the NY Times, Emmy award commentator for Fox News and contributor to popular and professional publications, and NPR. Notable books include The Dream Deferred and L.A. Lost and Found. His love for the theater was nurtured as a gofer for the legendary critic Brooks Atkinson, acting in the Cornell Drama Club, alongside Gordon Davidson, and a bitpart as a judge in TV’s 90210 for which he did FX.