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REVIEW: Emotionally Sweeping Frankenstein Breathes Life into the Southern (COLLIDE)

The Monster (Renee Guittar) and Mary Shelley (Betsy Nelson) look on as Dr. Frankenstein (Patrick Jeffrey) and his wife Elizabeth (Grace Janiszewski) dance in COLLIDE Theatrical’s production of Frankenstein, now playing at the Southern Theater. Photo by Wells Film and Photo.

There is a temptation to try and read authors and artists’ biographical details into their work. This is usually erroneous and trivializing, but very occasionally real-life serves as a true and brilliant key to the fictional creations. This rare brilliance is on display throughout COLLIDE Theatrical’s current production of Frankenstein.

As choices go for a biographical lens, Mary Shelley’s life has much to offer: a teenaged elopement with a married man who quickly became involved in polyamorous relationships with her sisters, cruel abandonment, fleeing from debtors, being outcast by “proper” society, tragic deaths, and more. Along the way, she engaged in sweeping travels across Europe, rubbed shoulders with the larger-than-life poet-turned-revolutionary Lord Byron, and started writing what some call the first science fiction novel on a dare. Each of these biographical threads manifests in her powerful debut novel Frankenstein, with the connections often made explicit by words from Shelley’s own letters. 

COLLIDE’s Frankenstein taps into this rich background tapestry, pulling out a pair of intertwining narratives. The primary narrative is Mary Shelley’s own life; the secondary narrative, which eventually overtakes the primary one, follows key events in her famous Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Either would be thrilling on their own, but in combination they are electric. 

Frankenstein is directed and choreographed by Regina Peluso and Heather Brockman, with additional choreography by Rush Benson, Jarod Boltjes, Renee Guittar, and Patrick Jeffrey. In COLLIDE’s trademark style, Frankenstein blends a mix of contemporary and classical dance elements with a vibrant pop soundtrack. The latter songs are very well chosen: if you happen to know their lyrics and emotional beats, there is extra foreshadowing to appreciate in the many of excellent dance numbers.


Mary Shelley (Betsy Nelson, left) pens a key scene from her novel: Dr. Frankenstein (Patrick Jeffrey, right) works to vivify The Monster (Renee Guittar). Photo by Wells Film and Photo.

If you saw the first 15 minutes or so of Frankenstein and were called away, you might be forgiven for thinking that the show was purely lighthearted and fun. This opening is a delightful showcase for Betsy Nelson (as Mary Shelley), who shines in a featured solo set to Jessica Curry’s “Mandus” and the following pas de deux set to Two Piano Guys’ “Rewrite the Stars”. It warmly captures the intoxication of adolescent love – and sets up the great fall as the real-life romance began to fracture and Frankenstein the novel started to coalesce from the growing shadows. While some knowledge of the author’s life and the novel are helpful, they are not required, thanks to a series of guiding voiceovers based on Shelley’s own writings, filling in key details.

Not that COLLIDE takes the direct path: just as the novel pulls the reader through twisting descriptions and events that came to characterize the Gothic horror genre, the show hints at the central axis of tension in a powerful solo number set to “Control” by Unknown Brain, featuring a gripping performance by Patrick Jeffrey as Frankenstein. Then the ensemble returns for a double-hit dance combo, set to “Dare You to Move” by Vitamin String Quartet and “Breath of Life” by Florence and the Machine. The first part paints a dynamic canvas out of the famous writing challenge delivered by Lord Byron to his fellow party guests, spurring the real-life Mary Shelley to begin her novel. The separate flashes of inspiration erupt through the dancers’ bodies, each with distinct personalities, before Nelson/Shelley’s takes over. Then, in the second part, we are finally given our first true glimpse of The Monster (Renee Guittar).

Thanks to innumerable Hollywood adaptations, it’s easy to go hackneyed and over the top with Frankenstein‘s revivification scene. COLLIDE’s production builds up the tension with ominous mood lighting by Tony Stoeri and an evocative but atypical 19th-century laboratory look by Robin McIntyre, which put the focus more directly on the tension between Nelson/Shelley and Jeffrey/Frankenstein and their movements. This is not a simple path to success, as shown in the choreography; the result is that the first movement by The Monster feels like a great accomplishment…and then it’s down a rollercoaster of alternate joys, rejections, tragedies, and struggle.

As The Monster, Renee Guittar perfectly captures those extremes of innocence and menace that so embody its tragic nature. When The Monster delights in the simple joys of life, you are swept away; when it is cast out and assaulted, you feel for the creature’s plight. Alas, good intentions are no shield from creating harm, which leads into the third and final act of COLLIDE’s Frankenstein – and that is a thrilling rollercoaster ride. 

In COLLIDE Theatrical’s adaptation of the novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, connections between the life of author Mary Shelley (Betsy Nelson, left) and the novel’s characters and events are rendered in striking dance numbers. Photo by Wells Film and Photo.

COLLIDE Theatrical’s Frankenstein plays through October 24, 2021 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or recent negative tests is required for entry. Digital programs are available.

Basil Considine