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Puppeteer Jon Ludwig brings Frankenstein back to life

Ludwig helms a voodoo version of the classic at Theater Emory

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For her 1818 novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley chose locations such as the Alpine climes and shadowy forests of Europe as well as the ice floes of the Arctic north. For his puppet-based adaptation of Frankenstein, Jon Ludwig ventures to the other side of the globe by evoking the feverish mysticism and music of the Caribbean.

The concept sounds crazy at first, and conjures a fleeting image of Frankenstein’s undead creation in a flowered shirt, sipping piña coladas. In fact, an ecstatic madness seizes Ludwig’s voodoo version of Frankenstein. The production possesses far more power than another literal take on Shelley’s oft-told gothic horror tale. Often the term avant-garde serves as a synonym for difficult or inaccessible theatrical concepts, but with Ludwig’s Frankenstein, avant-garde is astonishing.

The Center for Puppetry Arts first produced Frankenstein as one of the highlights of the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. Theater Emory reanimates the show, again under Ludwig’s direction, which retains its premise as a ritual induction into the Church of Frankenstein. The audience enters as the congregation, and ghostly, masked acolytes help us don white lab coats and scrub our hands like surgeons. Victor Frankenstein (Shawn Escarciga) has hardly any dialogue but serves as the subject of an initiation ceremony, officiated by Mambo Mary Shelley (Barbara Washington), who recites from an ancient tome with a lightning bolt on front.

A shadow-puppet graveyard stroll captures some of the spooky imagery of the old Frankenstein movies, but otherwise the production subverts expectations with delirious and often humorous surrealism. For Victor’s university years, the acolytes hoist beer glasses to a collegiate drinking song. A frog in academic robes represents the professor who reveals that electric current can revive the dead – in this case, a hapless, singing cat repeatedly bonked with a mallet, then zapped with jumper cables. Shelley’s text becomes song lyrics, while untranslated French and German provide much of the dialogue. Percussionists Thom Jenkins and Petro Bass and keyboard player/vocalist Bryan Mercer perform near-constant musical accompaniment with rhythms that set pulses racing.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Shelley used Frankenstein as a cautionary tale against reckless science, which would superficially seem to contradict the production’s religious fervor. But the book is also rife with imagery about man usurping God’s role in destroying and creating life — themes that dovetail with Christian resurrection symbolism and voodoo zombification. Below the surface, the source and the show seem bound together like tendons. Death’s recurrence in the book becomes a physical presence in the ceremony in the guise of black-clad Baron Samedi from Haitian lore, with Clint Thornton wearing the traditional top hat and skull face.

The original 1996 Frankenstein was one of the most exciting plays I’ve ever seen, but Theater Emory’s production features minor differences. The original cheekily gave out programs in barf bags in a wink to its gory operation scene. “Love Potion No. 9” accompanied the creation of the monster’s mate, but has been replaced with a more appropriate rock song in the current production. Students comprise much of the cast and the dance isn’t as athletic as one would hope. To be fair, the performance space leaves little room for complex choreography. Though Victor observes most of the action, Escarciga’s acting tends to be passive to the point of immobility.

The monster is even better than I remembered — a massive costume/body puppet whose shaggy head looks like part skull, part caveman face. Frankenstein’s misshapen creation (also played by Thornton) creates a terrifying presence when he stalks members of Victor’s family, but also elicits sympathy and humor. Scenes that show him learning French or singing along with woodland creatures contain punch lines similar to the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number from Young Frankenstein.

Ludwig’s Frankenstein suggests an almost jazz-like improvisation on Shelley’s themes. A less familiar work wouldn’t support such an irreverent (if respectful) treatment. Nevertheless, the ritualistic device contains a shrewd commentary on the process of adaptation. Numerous archetypal narratives could lend themselves to such an approach, with, say, Alice in Wonderland being another familiar story with an almost ceremonial structure. Ludwig’s conga drums, animal puppets and voodoo costumes take a nearly 200-year-old novel and prove that “It’s alive! Alive!”

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