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The monster speaks

New Muses' production of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a baroque tale of sorrow and revenge

As the Creature, Ben Stahl imbues even its most hideous actions with an aching sadness. Photo credit: New Muses Theatre Company

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I confess to having a bit of a cultural blind spot when it comes to Frankenstein. I've generally absorbed the beats of the story by dint of existing as a person for almost 30 years, but I've never read Mary Shelley's iconic novel, which stands tall as a metaphorically rich property to this day. For those whose unfamiliarity with the original novel may cause them to picture Frankenstein's monster as a lumbering, grunting giant, New Muses Theatre Company's new production of Frankenstein may be somewhat startling.

This adaptation of Frankenstein is a slavishly faithful one, taking 95 percent of its text from Shelley's writing. In doing so, the Creature we are presented with is one who speaks -- eloquently, and for drastically long stretches, at one point delivering a monologue that seems to run around 15 minutes. The Creature only grunts and snarls in flashbacks of his early days, before he gained the capacity for speech.

The bare bones of at least the beginning of the story is familiar to everyone: Victor Frankenstein (Niclas Olson, who also adapted and directed the play) experiments with creating new life out of old, assembling a man out of cadavers and giving it consciousness. As played by Ben Stahl, the Creature joins our world scared, confused, desperate for affection and devastated to find that none exists for it here. The Creature's origins are explained in flashback to Capt. Robert Walton (Nick Clawson), who found Dr. Frankenstein left for dead in the Arctic.

While so much pop-cultural time and energy has been invested in the iconic creation of Frankenstein's monster -- what with all the lightning crashes and exclamations of it being alive -- this version treats the creation as a given, eager to move on to the weird, downtrodden aftermath. Frankenstein is repulsed by the Creature, who almost immediately escapes and spends two years in isolation, learning to speak through observing a kindly father and daughter from a distance.

This is a modest cast, rounded out by a warm performance from Jenna McRill as Frankenstein's fiancée, Margaret. Frankenstein, as portrayed by Olson, is an abundantly selfish man, allowing tragedies to pile up by simply refusing to take responsibility for what his reckless work has brought to the world.

Stahl, here, is a force of nature. As one might expect, the role of the Creature is a difficult one, but Stahl attacks it with a palpable gusto. The Creature is a being that's been given sentience, only to learn from its creator and from everyone it encounters that it is a mistake, a pitiable aberration to be feared and loathed. Even as the Creature does hideous things in the name of getting revenge on Frankenstein, Stahl imbues the character with an aching sadness.

Staged in the close quarters of the Dukesbay Theater, the audience is given the opportunity to watch the fallout of playing God in a dynamic, intimate setting. The faithful adaptation results in some stilted sections, but the performances and stage design keep the show fleet and engaging.

Frankenstein, 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Aug. 20, $10-$15, The Dukesbay Theater, 508 6th Ave., Tacoma, 253.254.5530, newmuses.com

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