Stiff Monster

Watching the KLPac production of Frankenstein in Love, I was somehow reminded of a play I saw at a high-school theatre competition about 10 years back. It was a staging of Keris Laksaman Bentan, a popular text about the assassination of Sultan Mahmud. Everyone had packets of rose syrup hidden under their costumes, and whenever a stabbing occurred, the stricken actor would squeeze his plastic bag: sticky pink water would gush out.

These packets of ‘blood’ — more properly known as ‘squibs’, most widely used in film to simulate gunshot wounds — were deployed twice in the Pentas 1 performance. I’m pretty sure they didn’t use rose syrup. I don’t know. It was difficult to see.

One doesn’t expect computer-generated ghosts and exploding heads in the theatre — this isn’t the movies, and a squib or two is probably as sophisticated as it gets. But Grand Guignol theatre (prime examples of which include Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Doug Wright’s Quills) doesn’t need elaborate special effects to spook and repulse, if enough care is given to convincing acting and evocative mood.

For director Gavin Yap, the latter meant a darkened hall, with green and blue lights making criss-cross patterns on the floor.

When I settled into my seat for the Frankenstein in Love‘s travesties, a generic horror soundscape began, and Douglas Lim shuffled about in the gloom, shifting what appeared to be dead bodies. Maybe this was frightening — green and blue lights, coming to get me!

No, not really. I am tempted to call Lim Ang Swee’s lighting a stroke of genius: it tried to obscure everything onstage. Unfortunately, it didn’t hide everything.

A Bad Halloween Party

Frankenstein in Love is the twisted creation of horror writer Clive Barker, famed for some of the best B-grade movies of all time, including 1987’s Hellraiser and the Candyman trilogy. One cannot know why Barker chose to re-imagine Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but he does some interesting mangling.

Instead of a tragic Europe, the play is set in an unnamed South American country, in the midst of a revolution headed by charismatic El Coco, the Boogeyman. The freedom fighters find a grisly laboratory under the presidential palace: it belongs to Dr Joseph Frankenstein (here transposed into Jewish ethnicity — his bloodthirsty ways are rather weakly explained as a symptom of having experienced Auschwitz).

By the end of Act One, we discover that El Coco was Frankenstein’s original Monster. The revolutionary’s budding love for Veronique Flecker, another of doctor’s creations, is interrupted: the couple is captured and delivered to Frankenstein, who promptly has El Coco skinned and left for dead.

At this point in the KLPac performance, I realised why the play reminded me of Keris Laksamana Bentan: it looked cheap.

El Coco’s skin, hung up on scaffolding as the first act’s set-piece, looked suspiciously like a deflated blow-up doll. The Y-shaped sutures on the creatures’ faces that identified them as Frankenstein’s creations looked like they were done by a nurse afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome — they were so huge the gloom couldn’t hide them. The costumes were a mix of Goth-surplus items and bandages.

When people pay to go and see a play at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, I don’t think they expect a Halloween party. With Frankenstein in Love, that was what they got — and a bad one, at that.

A shame, since underneath all the lame makeup, corny special effects and tacky costumes were some pretty good lines: “Death’s good, like the petit mort — a sense of a duty done,” gave the gore some pathos; “I’m good with virgins, especially docile virgins who died early,” elicited a few laughs.

Undead Actors

We laughed more at the death of Cockatoo, El Coco’s right-hand man, the night I watched Frankenstein in Love. Played by Michael Chen, this apparently tragic scene in the second act was made comic because of the performer’s inability to get into character: every time he had lines, Michael would noticeably turn to address the seats, instead of actually engaging whichever fellow actor to whom he was supposed to be talking — and this tic extended to his supposed demise.

It isn’t fair for me to single out anyone, though — and this was the real tragedy of the play: we never forgot that the people we saw onstage were actors, mouthing their lines as if eating hot cardboard, more preoccupied with getting the words correct (some actually swayed back and forth during their recital) than bothering about emotion or pacing. Lack of the most rudimentary elements of stagecraft — eye contact, for example — meant that it was hard to determine who was talking to whom, unless the characters addressed each other by name.

Perhaps training for the timing of those two squibs kept the performers from perfecting their roles. I don’t know.

Rashid Salleh’s El Coco and Melissa Maureen’s Veronique made the one of the most passionless stage couples of recent times: they exchanged declarations of love twice onstage, and suddenly we were expected to believe they were star-crossed lovers –­ whatever happened to foreplay and romance?

Or heaving chests, for that matter? If either were monitored by an electrocardiogram, I’m convinced they would have shown flat-lines. Sure, the monster and his lover are technically dead — but I doubt corpses are supposed to be that stiff.

One exception: Kennie Dowle, as Dr Frankenstein, stood out from the rest of the cast with his testosterone-filled swagger and dubious accent — the only performer who looked as if he was having fun with his character. But his late appearance, in the last scene of Act One, could not save this already undead production.

Frankenstein in Love was Frankenstein’s monster itself: patchy, clumsy, made up of parts which did not fit. Worse, it was the monster before it received its spark of life — in essence, an amalgam of dead bodies. What the play needed was a bolt of lightning.

Unfortunately, it didn’t strike.


First Published: 09.11.2006 on Kakiseni

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