Sunday, June 16, 2013

Frankenstein Upstairs

In Frankenstein Upstairs, Mac Rogers once again uses science fiction as his delivery system to present us with his unique combination of insight, humor, wisdom, and compassion. The plot is seemingly simple: Sophie and Marisol, a young couple, become friends with their neighbor upstairs, Dr. Victoria Frankenstein. In their slightly alternate universe, the Frankenstein novel/legend does not exist, so the name has no resonance for them; for the audience, however, the name promises death, rebirth, and all sorts of deliciously dreadful complications.

Kristen Vaughan
Photo: Deborah Alexander
One of Rogers' main themes in Frankenstein Upstairs is "can you choose your family?," and his answer is clearly "yes." In addition to Sophie, Marisol has chosen Taylor, a man she met in a domestic-violence-recovery group, as kin. Taylor loves Marisol deeply and also admires her because she's "the biggest hit in group, right? She’s the only one who tells stories about hitting back."

And Dr. Frankenstein ("Please call me Vic"), clearly isolated and terribly lonely, is touched, thrilled, grateful, and somehow defrosted when Sophie simply invites her to dinner. When Marisol later touches her face, in a moment of easy (for Marisol) intimacy (unprecedented for Vic), Vic falls in love with both women, but not romantically. She chooses them for her family. Whether they will choose her back is another story.

Rogers has a wonderful ability to make the mundane magical and the magical mundane. On one hand, Vic is Dr. Frankenstein, crazy, brilliant, able to change the world--and also charming and funny. On the other, she is the neighbor-friend-relative who doesn't understand boundaries, who doesn't recognize when she's overstayed her welcome, who thinks that the amount she (genuinely!) loves someone means that they have to love her back. This Dr. Frankenstein is easy to sympathize with--it's not her fault she's a mad genius.

Another way in which Rogers makes the magical mundane is that he treats its ramifications realistically; there is much in this show that is bizarrely believable. And no matter what happens to the characters, someone still needs to make a living.

Frankenstein Upstairs is not without its faults, and some are significant. The most important is that the Sophie and Marisol of the first act are deeply annoying. They bicker and they're petulant, and it's hard to see why they love each other--or even that they love each other. And while I have some sympathy for Sophie, rigid as she is, Marisol comes across as self-centered, uncooperative, moody, and obnoxious. I get that she's supposed to be charming, but she isn't. The second act redeems the women and their relationship, but the play would be stronger if we saw them being loving much earlier than we do.

Another fault is trivial in some ways, yet important in others: too many scenes rely on Sophie and Marisol having left the door to their apartment open. They live in DUMBO; Sophie is a control freak; an open door is not going to happen. (Yes, I accept that Dr. Frankenstein can bring the dead back to life, but not that two women would leave the door open to their apartment. Suspension of disbelief is a funny thing.)

More significantly, the first act drags. Taylor's visits, in particular, are problematic; he's almost as annoying as Marisol.

But once the second act gets going, the play is as entertaining as a toboggan ride and considerably more meaningful. The toboggan twists this way, and the play is fun; that way, and the play is poignant. It's a lovely combination.

Director Jordana Williams keeps Frankenstein Upstairs crystal clear, and in the second act, well-paced. Autumn Dorneld as Sophie and Diana Oh as Marisol come into their own in the second act as well. The set design by Sandy Yaklin, costume design by Amanda Jenks, sound design by Jeanne E. Travis, and lighting design by Jennifer Linn Wilcox are excellent and important.

And then there is the extraordinary Kristen Vaughan, who makes Vic a tragic heroine, sad, brilliant, arrogant, lonely, wry, manipulative, loving, creepy, and clueless. She handles the comedy and drama with equal grace, and her every moment is complex and textured and real.

This is not Mac Rogers' best work, but it is well worth seeing. The first act is an occasional slog, but oh, that second act.

(second row center; press ticket)

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