Scene4-Internal Magazine of Arts and Culture
Frankenstein at SF Ballet | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | Scene4 Magazine-March 2017 |

Catherine Conway Honig

At the heart of Mary Shelley’s timeless and provocative “Frankenstein” are multiple intersecting possibilities for illustrating complex relationships. In Liam Scarlett’s new ballet, sadly, very few are fully explored for their expansive potential. Beautiful sets, horrifyingly gorgeous projections, virtuosic dancing, luxurious costumes and a commissioned score could not save the evening-long work from its tragic flaws. Like Victor Frankenstein, the medical student who created and lost control of The Creature, Scarlett fell victim to his own unwieldy creation. By becoming overly preoccupied with melodrama, manor house manners and lots of superfluous scenes, he forgot that the story is ultimately about ambivalence toward our own creations.

During the five scenes, plus a prologue, that clutter and compete in Act I, it is not until the final moments of the very long act that the story, and The Creature, come to life. But the spectacularly dramatic moment is lost when the curtain falls just as the audience is finally engaged mentally, physically, emotionally, visually and aurally.

Victor Frankenstein (Joseph Walsh who was magnificent and Max Cauthorn, plucked from the corps de ballet for the role) is a nerdy kid, the son of a doting, pregnant mother and a dominant, if affectionate father who practices medicine. Following in the path of his father, Victor is about to leave for medical school when Scarlett’s three major subplot points collide. Daddy gives Victor a red notebook in which to record his profound thoughts and discoveries; Victor and his adopted sister profess their passion and intention to eventually marry; and Victor’s mother dies while birthing a son, William. These occasions inspire various Downton Abbey-type scenes in which various servants divided into echelons of status perform a lot of vapid choreography. The head housekeeper Madame Moritz (a character role played by Anita Paciotti and Jennifer Stahl) and her daughter, Justine Moritz (danced beautifully by both Sasha de Sola and Julia Rowe) become embroiled in family matters as young Justine is constantly tempted to penetrate the invisible line preventing her from ever fully participating because of her lower status.


Victor’s arrival at medical school inspires several more superfluous scenes of medical students competing for the most outrageous pranks. The monotony of these scenes is broken up by the introduction and near constant interruptions made by Victor’s new best friend, Henry Clerval (danced with virtuosity and aplomb by the newly promoted principal, Angelo Greco).  Relaxing at a tavern after class, the male students attract bawdily clad young women who perform every possible movement clichĂ© suggesting their availability. Victor remains aloof, scribbling in his red notebook. Finally, after more student antics and a grumpy professor dishes out some sadistic punishment, the Anatomy Theatre becomes the scene of experiments in bringing moribund flesh to life.

It is thought that Mary Shelley was inspired by actual experiments that were being conducted in London in the early 19th century when she wrote “Frankenstein.” Under a theory entitled “Galvanism,” electrical currents were used to animate cadavers unearthed from cemeteries.

Working late at night on his own after the other students and the professor have left for the night, Victor sews together various pieces of preserved flesh until he has molded a lump of flesh into the shape of a human and then implants a heart. Referring to his red notebook, he makes several attempts at completing his experiment.  John Macfarlane’s sets, David Finn’s lighting and Finn Ross’s projection design ignite the stage with spectacular lightning, extravagant electrical flashes and explosions: in other words, smoke and mirrors at their finest. The commissioned score by Lowell Liebermann provides a raucous crescendo and finally The Creature (portrayed with gusto by Vitor Luiz and Taras Domitro) raises an arm.

As if the recess bell sounded just as a teacher finally reached the climax of her lecture, Scarlett rushes to a violent encounter between Victor and The Creature. Victor tosses the naked and hideous creature his coat, which contains the red notebook, and The Creature flees mere seconds after becoming animated. Whereas Mary Shelley carefully constructed a complex relationship between the two, Scarlett defaults to the monster vs man dichotomy and hope for emotional subtlety is obscured.


The second act returns to the Frankenstein manor in Geneva and, though no less burdened by overpopulation, it highlights the relationship between Elizabeth and Victor as Victor begins to brood about his creation. A long and sweeping pas de deux shows Victor increasingly aloof and emotionally frozen with only occasional moments of connection with his fiancée. The Creature lurks in the manor grounds watching hopefully for an opportunity to participate.

In a successful bid to lure Victor out of the house, The Creature leaves the red book behind cluing Victor to his worst fears that they are not alone.


The Housekeeper’s daughter has now become Nanny to young William and she teaches him how to bow like a gentleman. In a touching motif that will return throughout the rest of the evening, The Creature mimics the bow as if he were receiving the lesson. A birthday party for the young boy brings out the villagers and more opportunities for court dances and also a game of blind man’s bluff. Victor’s always mischievous pal Henry suggests leaving William alone while he’s blindfolded and The Creature takes advantage of the opportunity to befriend him. While still blindfolded, they dance together but once the child realizes he has been approached by a deformed monster he screams for help and in an attempt to silence the child, the monster overpowers and accidentally kills him.


The third act is the most powerful as the long-awaited emotional complexity finally begins to build. All of this takes place with the backdrop of Elizabeth and Victor’s wedding and more court dances into which The Creature weaves in and out in a lovely bit of staging. Victor spots him and The Creature begs Victor for understanding and acceptance and also for a counterpart who he could love as Victor loves Elizabeth. Victor refuses and a prolonged male pas de deux portrays The Creature’s attempts to show Victor how he has learned to mimic him as evidence of how he longs to be accepted. When Victor’s fear, sorrow, guilt and ultimate rejection fuel The Creature’s frustration, The Creature kills Victor’s father, then Elizabeth, and in the final confrontation, rather than killing The Creature, Victor shoots himself.

In the final scene, the Creature walks slowly, all alone, upstage and away from the burning manor.


Bemoaning Scarlatt’s missed opportunities is only part of the story of this North American Premier of a co-production with the Royal Ballet. What worked were the multimedia projections and especially the projection of a skull rotating toward the audience on the outer curtain. It brought a deliciously creepy feeling to the San Francisco Opera House. And the brilliant dancers cannot be blamed for the weaknesses in the narrative. Matching the brilliance of Mary Shelley, the precocious 18 year-old who wrote the novel in 1818, turned out to be a fiendish challenge.

Photos: © Erik Tomasson 

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Scene4 Magazine - Catherine Conway Honig

Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a Senior Writer with Scene4. For more of her commentary
and articles, check the Archives.

©2017 Catherine Conway Honig
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine




March 2017

Volume 17 Issue 10

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