A note on NYC play, “FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS”Books/Art/Culture,News,Reviews Samuel Zimmerman
Modern extensions of classic monster mythos are rarely enthralling. Often, it’s the straining to connect, or continue that story and losing sight of what should be the focus — this story’s characters and heart —that does it in. Admittedly, that unavoidable exposition is where Mac Rogers’ new play, FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS feels slightly bogged down, but it’s sure not lacking in character, heart or an intense emotional center. Now playing at the Secret Theatre, the show marries domestic drama and horror story with both wit and tragedy, drawing you in with the former before breaking you down in its second act.
I attended the Friday, June 14 performance of FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS, a date worth noting for one small, but unfortunate reason. The building that houses the Secret Theatre’s productions hit some snags in its power, causing the show to be performed without its proper light and sound cues. If the cast missed a beat, it was unnoticeable. However, I’d rather this not be seen as a proper or traditional review. The reason being it seems inappropriate, as I’m afraid it would discredit and not adequately address the undoubtedly hard work put forth by the show’s light and sound designers.
I am still absolutely encouraging you to see this show. Confined to a single apartment, that of couple and business partners Marisol (Diana Oh) and Sophie (Autumn Dornfeld), the moniker of FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS describes exactly that. Living above the two is something of a mysterious doctor, eventually revealed to be one Victoria Frankenstein (Kristen Vaughan). Her experiments are a constant source of frustration, knocking out the power in the building. Her mystery begins to unravel, however as she becomes a growing presence in the home downstairs. One of the more lovely aspects of FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS is that the doctor is not readily mad or wholly withdrawn. She is coaxed out of a shell by Marisol and Sophie, resulting in many laughs and delightful, authentic interaction. The three all possess rounded, singular personalities that clash and come together wonderfully in the stellar performances. In fact, when it’s time for Vic (as she comes to be called) to put her expected research to use, it’s not out of malice. That comes later, in the form of loving too hard and too close. Vic, with her patch-worked persona and ancestry, is much more like Frankenstein’s monster than her great grandfather.
Before Vic enters their lives (and after and during), Sophie and Marisol are at odds. They are loving and compatible, but not on the surface. They are both a great deal to handle. Sophie is rigid and demanding, while Marisol is rarely serious. Marisol is still reeling from a past abusive relationship and trying to navigate what Sophie expects from her in their social media business, and what she expects from herself. She is a defensive character, which reveals itself in a snark and attitude that would be grating if it weren’t for both skilled script and Oh’s embodiment of the character. It’s a stunning turn that becomes more so in the second half (where the horror lies).
Through an unfortunate accident, Marisol dies. If the first half of FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS is delightful and sweet, the second is confined thriller as a strange, sick domestic scenario plays out between Sophie, the revived and recovering Marisol and Vic. It’s a hard turn that’s ambitious in its uncomfortable atmosphere, exploring and spilling the previously bubbling themes of stitching oneself together after trauma, creating family and balancing the professional and private, both stumbling and soaring along the way.
The four characters of FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS are all fighting for some sort of normalcy. Sophie and Marisol are looking for a way to live and work together harmoniously. Their client and friend Taylor (Rob Maitner), while openly gay, still struggles behind a pseudonym on his romantic/erotic supernatural novels. Vic laments what she’s given up — companionship and love — in the name of her work, a struggle planted on the shoulders of working women told they must choose one or the other. Rogers’ script contains little in the way of flashing signs pointing out social parallel, but it is significant and touching that all of the leads live within marginalized communities who fight for, and deserve, a domesticity and contentment everyone does.
It’s these beats that carry the show to a place absolutely worth seeking out. FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS is on until June 30 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, New York. For more, find tickets and information here.