The project started with one of those proverbial lightbulbs going off over someone’s head.
“Three years ago, I was working on a painting that involved puppets, and I was listening to opera,” Erin Mulligan recalled. “In that same time period I was reading ‘Frankenstein.’ I thought, let’s do a ‘Frankenstein’ puppet opera. So I called Craig (Joseph).”
Three years later, “Frankenstein: The Puppet Opera” has arrived. It opened Friday October 3 at downtown Canton’s Translations Art Gallery, for a nine-performance run through Nov. 1.
The 50-minute production, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein,” tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who creates a human-like creature in his laboratory. Presented on multiple stages, it utilizes a marionette, shadow puppets, rod puppets, body puppets and masks.
The show’s original operatic score was composed by Steve Parsons with lyrics by John Popa, the team behind the Players Guild’s musical version of “A Christmas Carol.” The performances will utilize a studio recording done with a 12-piece orchestra and vocals by Damian Henry (as Victor), Bart Herman (the Creature), Amanda Medley (Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancee) and Jim Graysmith (Captain Walton).
“I’m so excited to see everybody’s work come together,” said Mulligan, who built one of the Victor puppets and also created an anatomical drawing for the production. “There are so many brilliant creative people on the team.”
“We kept to that soaring, musical-theater approach. It’s not classical opera, but it’s rooted in opera. It’s definitely dramatic, but it feels contemporary, with little hints of Sondheim here and there. We kept it very song-based, but there are a lot of bits where they are singing dialogue. John went more for the imagery, and he would take his song-title cues from the dialogue,” said Parsons. A CD of the score will be available at performances.
“It’s got horrific elements to it, but it’s definitely not the old (Boris Karloff) movie. It’s definitely rooted in the novel. The creature is very ugly but also very articulate. There is romance between Victor and his fiancee. The creator and creature are almost father and son,” Parsons said. “We’re playing a lot with the theme of creation. Can we as humans create things in the way that God can? The vibe is like opera, very heightened, very intense, maybe even melodramatic without being silly. It’s not horrendously scary,” director-curator Craig Joseph said.
The storytelling utilizes three different Victor puppets and three Creature puppets. “The Creature gets bigger over the course of the production as he starts to get more powerful, and at the same time Victor starts shrinking as he is losing power,” Joseph said. “Each time Victor loses someone he loves he becomes sadder and more emaciated and less of a person. By the end he is this little hand puppet,” Mulligan said.
“Frankenstein: The Puppet Opera” has an eight-person conceptual team, a nine-member building team, and seven performers. “I have a huge email list from my theater stuff and I sent things out from there, I posted in actors’ trade papers and websites, a puppetry society and just word of mouth. We didn’t know exactly what we needed at first. We got artists, puppeteers, architects, interior designers, English majors who just loved ‘Frankenstein,’ theater costume and scenic designers. I wanted people who would bring good creative energy, play well with others and get (things) done,” Joseph said.
Initially, Joseph raised $3,500 through a Kickstarter.com campaign to pay for the musicians and recording studio. A second, more recent Kickstarter campaign raised more than $6,000 for building sets and puppets, and lighting and sound equipment.
“The thing I‘m most gratified about is that literally every single thing about this project is homegrown — the money, the music, the idea, the performances. I’ve never done anything of this scale where there was so much originality,” Joseph said. “When you do a collaboration of this scale with so many people. It can either be an absolute disaster or a wonderful symbiosis. Everyone really brought their best to the table to make it happen. There was always a plethora of great ideas.”
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Translations Gallery is located at 331 Cleveland Ave. NW, Canton OH 44702.