“Monster” – Neal Bell’s play at Potomac Theatre Project/NYC

For the past few summers, I've enjoyed attending Potomac Theatre Project/NYC presentations at Atlantic Theatre Company's Stage 2 in Chelsea (W. 16 St.).  Middlebury College's Theater Department seems to play a large part in funding this project, and recent grads and current students take several of the roles, mixed in with other actors from the NYC community.  The productions are minimalist, in the sense that there are rarely sets or numerous props, but the combination of costumes, lighting and sound effects with enthusiastic acting usually overcome that.  After all, one's imagination can supply what's missing if the story and acting are compelling.

Last night I attended a performance of Neal Bell's "Monster," a two-actor adapted from Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein."  The Director's note in the program says, "Audiences can abandon their preconceptions of the 'Frankenstein' story that they may have formed watching the B-movie versions of it over the years at home."  In other words, Bell has gone back to the source, the original novel, and he has devised a taut, terse script that provides plenty of material for the actors to chew over.

And chew over it they did last night!  Lots of very enthusiastic acting by a cast that was totally "in to it."  I was particularly impressed by John Zdrojeski, a recent Boston University graduate who played "Creature" – the "monster" of the title.  This is a supporting role to some extent, since the Creature gets less stage time than Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by Joe Varca, a Middlebury alum whose been enjoying a pretty active off-Broadway acting career.  Young Frankenstein is definitely the central character, and Varca does an excellent job with him.  But the sheer passion and commitment that Mr. Zdrojeski put into making what could be a cartoonish role into something very moving was quite rewarding to watch.  The lead female role of Dr. Frankenstein's cousin and possible future wife was well portrayed by Britian Seibert, another recent B.U. grad.  Christo Grabowski was convincing (and convincingly different) in the two roles of Walton, the fearless ship captain, and Clervall, the devoted family retainer who seems to be in love with Dr. Frankenstein.  In fact, everybody seems to be in love with Dr. Frankenstein.

The burden of the story, of course, is that young Frankenstein is expelled from medical school when his experiment blows up the lab, and retreats to his parents' home where he sets up a lab in the basement.  Frankenstein has lost several siblings and is obsessed with the subject of death – to such an extent, and with such a mix of curiosity and fear, that he seeks to learn the secret of life and to create perpetual life.  He furtively collects body parts where he can find them and sews together a humanoid creature, sparking it to life with electricity captured in a bottle during a thunderstorm (using a kit with a key on the string).  The creature awakes, and seems eternally alive (Frankenstein's attempts to kill it are unavailing), but on the other hand defective and puzzled about why he is alive, loveless and alone.

At any rate, the story is well told by Neal Bell and this cast does a great job of bringing it to life, so to speak.  I look forward to attending a performance of their other summer offering next week: Caryl Churchill's "Serious Money."  They are also running an "Afterdark" series of late evening productions, which I suspect are more like read-throughs of new plays, on July 19, 24, & 26.  I'm not a late-enough night person to consider these.

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