by Hugh Hunter

Quintessence in Mt. Airy opened its ninth season with “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” (1818) by Mary Shelley. The new adaptation by director Alexander Burns commemorates its 200th anniversary. While there have been countless versions of the seminal classic, few bear much resemblance to this revival.

Most of us are familiar with “Frankenstein” through the 1931 Boris Karloff movie. It starts off with a dramatic scene where the doctor creates his monster, is full of scary, sometimes sentimental episodes, and ends with a nighttime monster hunt by torchlight.

Swell story, but not the one Shelley wrote. Burns sticks to the original. In his “Frankenstein” both the Doctor and the Monster are notably self-conscious. Singly, they spend a lot of time on stage in direct audience address, describing or defending their thoughts and actions, using Mary Shelley’s introspective, flowery dialogue.

Michael Zlabinger and Jake Blouch are well-cast as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the Monster, respectively. They dress and look different but otherwise so resemble each other in their rages, physical movement and cadence that they could be brothers. Somehow, both manage to hold your attention as they deliver Shelley’s intricate dialogue without a hitch.

Stagecraft is minimal; the show relies on your imagination and willingness to suspend disbelief. On occasion, the light and set design of Brian Sidney Bembridge and the sound design of Daniel Ison do startle. Yet their major purpose is not to shock or scare but to highlight action and make the sense of place believable.

Kevin Bergen, Lee Cortopassi, Leah Gabriel and Hannah Wolf are the other principal actors, and they play double roles. Their scene as the impoverished, exiled De Lacey family is the most theatrical of the night. Here, the Monster in hiding learns English (thanks in part to John Milton), even as he learns of the final, inalterable nature of his outcast condition.

“Frankenstein” is famous as a horror story, but Shelley’s novel is cerebral. The Prometheus subtitle introduces the flaw of hubris. The Monster identifies with Adam and Satan, more human and graspable figures than Milton’s God. He appeals to the outsider in all of us and asks the core question: Why were we born?

But the Monster’s state is especially monstrous. Not only a questioning outcast, he knows he has no chance to find the saving grace of love. Does this suffering explain or justify his slaughter of the innocent without a hint of remorse? If he could do that, is the Monster even capable of love?

Shelley’s novel says something scary about all of us, and for the past 200 years we found it easier to turn the tale into horror movies and sendups. The Quintessence show is essentially a finely staged novel, more like a bicentennial restoration than a new adaptation.

“Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” will run through Oct. 21. Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. More information at 215-987-4450 or www.quintessencetheatre.org

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