‘Frankenstein’ at Crosby Center

A life of its own …

By Dagney C. Ernest | Oct 16, 2017
Tyler Johnstone, left, plays Victor Frankenstein and Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders plays his creation in the Midcoast Actors’ Studio’s “Frankenstein” at Crosby Center.

Belfast — Dark for many years, the former school at 96 Church St. came to life as the Crosby Center this summer, thanks to new owner Kiril Lozanov. The Crosby’s high-test performance space, which has hosted a grand opening revue and several concerts, roars back to full-fledged theatrical life the last two weekends in October — or should that verb be "screams"?

Midcoast Actors’ Studio will premiere a new stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 19th-century novel “Frankenstein” Friday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m., to continue Friday and Saturday nights; and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 29. The production is directed by longtime Belfastian thespian Erik Perkins, who penned the play. Not that he planned to.

“Jason and I and others were talking about the 2017 season, and I’ve always pretty firmly believed that October should be something kind of fun and scary, either a murder mystery or horror,” he said.

Perkins and Jason Bannister, founding artistic director of the troupe and producer of “Frankenstein,” looked into a variety of October options and finally decided that “Frankenstein” had the right combination of artistic merit and broad appeal. And it certainly has been adapted, for a variety of media. But nothing Perkins found filled the bill he imagined … so he imagined himself doing his own version.

“Honestly, I thought I could probably borrow a lot of pieces from other adaptations and kind of assemble it, in the manner of the monster, and it really turned out I couldn’t,” he said a week before opening.

He found most of the adaptations weren’t true to the novel, which is short in length but stuffed with “very dense prose,” he said.

“I had to just start from scratch and turn all the prose into my own dialog,” he said. “So it took a few months longer than I expected.”

Auditions were in August, and Bannister gave Perkins a deadline: “Frankenstein,” which he’d begun in February, needed a “final-ish” script by the first table-read. In June and July, Perkins called on Richard Sewall, “a friend of mine who is a great director and playwright himself,” to look at the adaptation.

“He was kind enough to suggest some rewrites and even rewrote a couple of passages for me himself,” said Perkins.

One night in July, some of the MAS faithful sat down to read his three-act, 20,000-word play. It took them three hours. Perkins realized he’d been going by page, rather than word, count and, like the source material, the language was dense. That’s when he called in Danielle Bannister, “a local author and great actress, who took it and made a lot of hard cuts that I wasn’t willing to make.”

She eliminated some 6,000 words, a bit more than Perkins could bear. He put in few more.

“The final fighting weight of the thing is 15,000 words in two acts which, I think, with intermission, we’re down to a nice fun evening of theater for people, a couple of hours,” he said.

Those whose introduction to “Frankenstein” was via film might wonder at the verbosity, but in Shelley’s short novel, the creature — the title refers to Dr. Victor, not the monster — has full mastery of the English language. And there is a lot of exposition, which other media can handle through nonverbal means. Perkins said he spent a lot of time figuring what could be “said” through action and acting. What words are spoken stay true, he hopes, to the nature and character of Shelley’s writing.

“Because it’s quite good! But it’s also very dense and it’s not a very active voice, like you’d want in a stage play,” he said.

In the end, he chose naturalization over modernization to produce dialog that sounds, well, natural.

“I don’t think there was a contraction in the entire novel,” he said, so inserting them helped save some time. And the original novel isn’t, he concluded, much fun.

“It’s pretty much a straight-up tragedy. It’s heavy stuff, and some of it’s scary stuff. People were scared by that novel. But a lot of it is dated, and people are a lot more desensitized,” he said.

So to make the drama compelling for a 21st-century audience and to insert the fun people expect with their horror now, he mined the deep popular-culture vein that has crystalized around the original tale — the Universal Studios movies of the 1930s, the Hammer Film movies of the late 1950s to early ‘70s, “everything down to Scooby-Doo cartoons and the Mel Brooks satire, they’re all part of the story.”

People from every theatrical troupe in the city, and there are many, showed interest in being part of the production and fill the cast and crew. The creature himself was the last, and hardest, role to cast, Perkins said. He will be played by Eric Sanders, who portrayed Daddy Warbucks this summer for the Belfast Maskers — and whose “side job” is as a city councilor.

“He’s tall, but not like a huge guy; but he’s a really good actor, which was more important to that part, because it’s not just someone crashing around knocking tables over … he’s a very complex character,” said Perkins.

Perkins also gave kudos to Tyler Johnstone, who plays Victor Frankenstein, saying, “He’s a great actor and I cut out a lot of work for him, it’s a lot of lines!”

As the creature, Sanders will sport some complex character makeup, as will another character that shows up late in the play. Perkins said both cast and crew are filled with “the best people around,” including makeup master and Maskers co-founder Diane Coller Wilson. She will be assisted by Meg Nickerson, who just directed the Maskers’ “On Golden Pond,” and a small team to work on the other characters. The creature’s costuming is by Nell Moore.

“And we have Elaine Bielenberg doing costumes and set dressing and John doing the set, yet another boon,” said Perkins. “We did from the start want to make sure that this has good production values. And the Bielenbergs bring that to the stage in spades.”

It’s a stage that has seen many a production, but not in recent years. Reworked to meet ADA accessibility standards by the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped in the 1990s, the space did not need much to bring it up to speed, according to Crosby Center Technical Director Juniper Purinton.

“It’s a good size, about 35 feet wide at the proscenium opening and 30 feet deep with good wing space and access all around. It’s got a decent light grid, a couple of electrics in the house and a couple of electrics on the stage; everything is pretty fixed and dead-hung, but it’s fine because the hang is really quite usable for dance or music or theater,” she said.

Dancing and music opened the weekend before, thanks to the Badass Women Who Rock Tour; the night after, the “Frankenstein” set was loaded in and the show took up residence. Perkins said the troupe had been able to do some work there earlier, although most of the rehearsals have been at Troy Howard Middle School.

The Crosby’s main floor is flat and does not have fixed seating, so the space can accommodate dancing, wedding receptions and banquet-type events, said Purinton. The balcony does have fixed seating; the approximate capacity overall is around 400. That’s a bit of a bump up from the Taos Community Auditorium, where Purinton served as general manager a number of years for the nonprofit Taos Center for the Arts in New Mexico.

“I came back to Maine to be closer to family. I grew up primarily in the town of Waldo; Erik and I both graduated from Mount View, in ‘93,” Purinton said. “I moved on to join theater companies and do other things. I just came back a year and a half ago.”

In Taos, Purinton oversaw, maintained and operated technical equipment including the lighting, the sound and projection and she’s been doing the same, all over Maine, since her return, from Colby College and the Camden International Film Festival to Bangor Ballet at the Gracie Theater and the Rockport and Camden opera houses.

“And I have a Sunday commitment to the Strand, so I’m not running the board for ‘Frankenstein,’” she said.

She did, however, do the show’s lighting design, which she said is pretty straightforward.

“I’m going to stick to the grid, not pull a Tom Sadowski — although I probably will be calling him for lightning help, he’s great for the special effects,” she said in a shout-out to the Midcoast’s master of theatrical lighting.

The Crosby Center may be relatively new as an entity, but Purinton has discovered she has a history with the space.

“Apparently, for some time-warp reason I forget this, I was in the ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ that the Maskers did a long time ago, at Crosby, in 1990 or ’89,” she said.

That show will be the next the Midcoast Actor’s Studio presents at Crosby Center, in December, “more of a family show, we’re looking forward to that,” she said.

Another thing she said she and the Crosby Center’s producing artistic director, Larraine Brown, are looking forward to is both presenting and hosting events in another space, a smaller one, right next to the big one. The “little theater” has just been refurbished, after spending some time as a storage area. Carpeted and with a stage just 18 inches high, it has a Black Box feel, Purinton said, and could be used for all manner of more intimate events, including acoustic music, open mics, poetry readings, one-man shows and “who knows!”

“It’s going to be a lot of fun, and it’s a way to get accustomed to what it is to use a professional theater space,” she said, citing the kinds of alternative spaces local troupes have been using in recent years.

The little theater will have a lower rental fee, of course. Purinton said the large space “isn’t exactly cheap, but we are competitive with Rockport and Camden” opera houses and, she said, quite a bit less expensive than the latter. There’s a lot of overhead with a big, professional theater, she said, and it takes serious mettle to pull off something in that space.

“It reflects well on the community and the Crosby Center that the events happening here be of the utmost quality, and that does require a real commitment to making that happen — and paying for it too,” she said.

Purinton said she thinks it was Perkins who said, “You know, if we’re having to pay for the rehearsal space, it means when we show up, we have to be working!”

“We all take things more seriously when the stakes are higher,” she said.

MAS is aiming for serious, steampunk scares with its “Frankenstein” and, unlike the family show to follow, does not recommend bringing young children along.

“There’s definitely some violence and some heavy themes, so I would say that parental guidance is strongly suggested,” said Perkins.

Tickets are $18, $13 for students, sold at the door 45 minutes before curtain. Seating is general admission. For more information, visit midcoastactors.org or on Facebook; email midcoastactors@gmail.com; or call the MAS box office at 370-7592. For more information about the Crosby Center, check out its Facebook page.

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