Monster Heart is a Feast For the Eyes At The Southern Theater

Photo by Michael Neuharth

There could not be a more perfect venue for Combustible Company’s Frankenstein themed Monster Heart than The Southern Theater in Minneapolis. It looks like the ruins of Dracula’s Castle, a crumbling stone arch framing an exposed brick wall. If there was ever a theater that you didn’t want to get locked in, alone, overnight, it’s the Southern Theater. It provides the perfect atmosphere for this play about the creation of a monster. I should say that if you are not into horror plays that’s OK, this isn’t really a scary play, there is some violence and there is a monster, but it will not make you jump or cower on the floor. Rather it is a like a stream of consciousness take on Mary Shelley’s life and her most famous story, Frankenstein. I wouldn’t say it was non-narrative, but it also isn’t concerned with telling a straightforward plot. It is more of a biographical sketch with commentary via incidents from Frankenstein. There is a dreamlike quality to the proceedings that could be frustrating to some audience members. I found though that while I’m not 100 % sure I followed everything, I was never lost or anxious for it to be more concrete. Everything is stylized, from the design, the dialogue reading, and the movement of the performers.

Monster Heart was directed by Kym Longhi and developed by Longhi with the ensemble. It uses snippets of Shelley’s life with an eye towards drawing a parallel between her life as an outsider and that of the Frankenstein creature. Shelley we learn had a very tragic life. Her mother died a month after she was born. At 17 she traveled to France and throughout Europe with the married poet Percy Shelley. Upon their return to England the unmarried and pregnant Mary was shunned by society and her father. Her inability to marry until the suicide of Percy’s first wife and suffering the death of three children completes the picture of a woman who understood loss and ostracism. The play draws the connections between these real life incidents and Frankenstein’s creation. This alone is a fascinating approach to the material, and while it would support a traditional narrative what makes this work so unusual is the way in which it presents these ideas.

The performers lead by Julianna Drajko as Mary Shelley (among other roles) and Erik Hoover as Percy Shelley (among other roles) move with a grace that suggests significant training in dance and movement. Their abilities to move in a way that suggests a plane of existence outside of reality adds to the dreamlike quality of the work. It is also deeply engrossing. In one segment three actresses combine with a costume to represent a female companion for the creature that Frankenstein is creating. There is also 10 minutes of pre-show that sets the mood and contains one of the highlights of the evening. which is, Joni Griffith entwined in one of two fabric lattices hung from the ceiling playing the violin. That eloquent moment has stayed with me for days and I suspect will for a long time to come.

The Production design which relies heavily on fog machines, lighting, sound and video projection is a triumph. The video design by Jim Peitzman is some of the most effective I’ve seen. It is an illustration of how projection can be used collaboratively with location, and in this case Karin Olson’s lighting design, to create something truly immersive. Jacob Davis’ sound design and Joni Griffith’s original music pair up to create a haunting soundscape. Longhi’s direction combines all of these elements in what is one of the most cohesive productions I’ve seen since Open Eye’s The Red Shoes. Do not go into the show seeking a traditional narrative, free your mind of that rigid need for a story. Instead let the production wash over you, allow your mind to enjoy the individual moments. They may not seem at first to always connect, but by the end your mind will reflect back on the entire show and I promise you will have a sense of the whole.

A seating tip for this production, the theater is general admission and I highly recommend getting there early and sitting in the front row, dead center. That is where I sat and the last moment of the play is beautifully and perfectly framed from that spot. Monster Heart runs through March 5th. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://southerntheater.org/shows/monster-heart

Don’t miss a single review from The Stages of MN, from the home page on the right enter your email address and click subscribe. Also Follow me on Facebook, search @thestagesofmn and click follow and on Instagram thestagesonmn.