‘Frankenstein’ is all but funny by 500 Clown
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org November 1, 2012 8:54PM
Jay Torrence (from left), Dean Evans and Leah Urzendowski star in "500 Clown Frankenstein" at Chicago’s Viaduct Theater.
When: Through Nov. 18
Where: The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western
Info: (312) 371-9751; http://500clown.com
Updated: December 3, 2012 6:09AM
Just a few days after several weather fronts conjoined to create the monstrous “Frankenstorm” that wreaked havoc along the East Coast, 500 Clown, those practitioners of theatrical and acrobatic anarchy, anxiety and pure panic, have blown onto the stage of The Viaduct Theatre. They’ve brought with them “500 Clown Frankenstein,” the troupe’s wildly warped 75-minute version of the Mary Shelley classic — a show first performed a decade ago, but now reconfigured under the direction of ensemble member Adrian Danzig and a largely new cast.
The show features three performers: Dean Evans as Nigel (playing the mad, tyrannical, effetely twisted Doctor), Jay Torrence as Francis (the Doctor’s endlessly abused assistant and, finally, its title character), and Leah Urzendowski-Courser (the gonzo girl with the cropped blonde hair, hoop skirt and crinolines who portrays Elizabeth, the sister/lover of the Doctor, as well as all the other roles). During its run, the ensemble of five clowns, which includes Danzig and Pam Chermansky, will “rotate” to form three different casts for the show.
Those unfamiliar with 500 Clown’s style should be advised that their motto might be: “We exist one step away from death and dismemberment.” Appended to this might be the warning: “We get to the heart of the story the hard way, and it’s helpful if you know the general outline of the tale before you arrive to see us. And by the way, no physical risk is too great for us.”
Or, let’s put it this way: In their “Frankenstein,” the crucial fourth member of the cast is a heavy table with a hinged top and leaves that can be inserted to make it larger (and more dangerous). And there are many moments in which this “operating table” could easily become a guillotine as the performers careen in, on, over and beneath it with death-defying bravado.
The show’s early scenes are crazed exercises in distraction — an almost perverse (or perversely funny) attempt to put off telling the story in any straightforward way, and to heighten the sense of tension and expectation. Sometimes these distractions are hilarious and horrifying; sometimes they are shrill and annoying.
Yet there are a slew of breathtaking moments of physical trust and daring here. There also are some inspired moments that fully capture the emotional heat, terror and madness of the story about the creation of Frankenstein’s monster — particularly when pieces of clothing from each actor are “donated” to create the sad being who will rise from the laboratory table. The rest is maniacal playing for time, and you either thrive on it, or are exhausted by it. (I’m somewhere in the middle.)
The performers (who sport red ears rather than the traditional red noses of clowns) are larger-than-life, fearless and quite astonishing in their range of skills. Jay Sangster’s costumes are as crazily deconstructed as the piece itself. And Clare Roche’s lighting direction is Beckettian. But it’s the guys who engineered and built that table (Dan Reilly and Jim Moore) who I’m betting on. They’ve got lives in the balance for every hinge and bolt they have overseen.