Monday, February 28, 2022

"Monster Heart" by Combustible Company at the Southern Theater

200 years after its publication, Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein still holds a permanent place in our culture, having inspired countless adaptations in theater, film, and television over the years. There's a reason that this story of the creature who just wants to be loved and accepted, and the destruction that follows when he isn't, continues to appeal to us; there's something very human about this creature. The author's life, while less fantastical, is every bit as dramatic as her story. Combustible Company's new piece Monster Heart combines the two stories into one beautifully tragic arc of love and grief (see also Collide Theatrical's recent Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which did the same through dance and pop music). Combining text from the novel and other writings of the time with music and movement, they weave a haunting tale, shedding new light on this familiar story. Only four performances remain in this short two-week run; click here for info and tickets.

Mary Shelley's life story is told more or less chronologically, interspersed with scenes from Frankenstein. Dates and specific writings from Mary, her early feminist mother, her poet husband, and other contemporaries frame each scene. Mary (portrayed by Julianna Drajko) and her husband Percy (Erik Hoover) are alternately Dr. Frankenstein and his creature as the story morphs from reality to fiction, the two blending together until its hard to separate one from the other. The two stories overlap with common themes of death, creation, loss, longing, and love.

Creator and director Kym Longhi, who developed the piece with the ensemble (also including Seth Campbell, Joni Griffith, Nick Miller, Anna Pladson, and Madeline Wall), notes in the program that the show "examines the damaging effects of patriarchal gender norms and ideas that have 'othered' women for centuries." We see this specifically in scenes of men and women drinking wine around the table with forced laughter, while we hear the writings of men of the era on the role of women. We also see it in the relationships between the characters. Mary Shelley's feminist work is a more recent discovery, and Monster Heart adds that piece to the Frankenstein story.

photo by Mike Neuharth
Director Kym Longhi and her barefoot cast employ a physical theater style, not so much dance as
specific and thoughtful movement that heighten the emotions of each scene, and creates some beautiful images. They also effectively use original music (written by ensemble member Joni Griffith, who also plays violin), with some hauntingly gorgeous harmonies.

The Southern Theater is such an amazing backdrop for performance that you don't have to do much with it, which they don't. The biggest addition are two hanging grids on either side of the stage, framing the arch, upon which characters climb and hang. A table and a few chairs make up the rest of the set, with video projections on the brick wall behind the arch doing the rest of the work in creating a sense of mood and place. The chronology of the story is also displayed there, along with quotes and citations for some of the things we're hearing. The cast is dressed in period inspired costumes that also have patchwork quality, like elegant rags in shades of blue. The monster masks are creepy and sad, not quite human (costume and prop design by Kasey Helmstead, video design by Jim Peitzman).

I saw a matinee of the show, and was a bit shocked to step out into the bright winter sunlight after spending time in this dark and mesmerizing world. The cast and creative team has very effectively and thoughtfully created a consistent and captivating world unto itself, but not without parallels to our own. Monster Heart continues at the Southern Theater through March 5 only.