There's something undeniably magical about puppets, and something that's also a little bit sinister. At first glance, they appear simply as little artificial toys with frozen expressions. And then they begin to move. Yes, there is something eerily impossible and slightly wrong about puppets—and that essential wrongness is largely what supplies a puppet's sense of creepy wonder.
Because of this, Mary Shelley's classic 1818 novel Frankenstein is particularly well suited to life-sized puppets. Frankenstein, of course, is the story of an inanimate man (a gruesome, stitched-together craft project made of dead body parts) brought to life by a grieving mad scientist—then abandoned and released into the world to fend for itself. Frankenstein has fascinated artists, playwrights and filmmakers for over 19 decades. Universal Studios managed to turn Frankenstein's monster into one of the most instantly recognized characters on the planet. Earlier this year, a spectacular version of Frankenstein was staged by the acclaimed the National Theater of London, selling out every performance.
And now it's the Independent Eye's turn.
With puppets designed by Conrad Bishop and an atmospheric soundtrack created by Elizabeth Fuller, the Sebastopol-based theater troupe has just premiered Frankenstein in the Studio at the Sixth Street Playhouse, its latest mashup of puppetry, acting, multimedia and music. Bishop's puppets and Mary Shelley's story turn out to be a well-suited match, making for a strangely beautiful, visually arresting spectacle of inanimate oddness.
Working within a large puppet stage "set" adorned with images of writhing figures, a team of three puppeteers (Bishop, Fuller and Eli Bishop) operate the somewhat vocally muffled characters in full view of the audience, the actors' faces tucked away behind mysterious masks. The script—lyrical and full of humor, but occasionally somewhat baffling—focuses on "the creature" as an abandoned boy-child, less a monosyllabic monster than a heartsick wild man. Gone are the horror-science-fiction clich–s (no electricity, no grave-robbing), replaced by a more intimate story of a damaged, increasingly angry soul in search of love, who, denied the family he desires, ends up settling for revenge.
'Frankenstein' runs Friday–Sunday through Oct. 30 in the Studio at the Sixth Street Playhouse. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. Friday–Saturday and Oct. 27 at 8pm; Sunday matinees, 2pm. $10–$20. 707.523.4185.