Laura Dunn in Frankenstein: A Cabaret.
  • Jordan Johnson
  • Laura Dunn in Frankenstein: A Cabaret.

Maggie Mascal’s and Laura Christina Dunn’s contribution to Fertile Ground, Frankenstein: A Cabaret, sounds like everything I want from a play: It’s creepy, it’s weird, it explores themes of gender and sexuality by adapting a well-known piece of literature with an almost exclusively female cast. Plus musical theatre. Disclaimer: I love adaptations. There’s something about playing with established boundaries and interpreting them in a new way that gets me excited every time. As a venue, The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven was perfect in terms of ambience—it felt as though you’d walked straight into old Portland, which seemed, from the gentrification jokes woven into the play, to be exactly the intention—although the acoustics left something to be desired.

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Between the two of them, Mascal and Dunn wrote, composed, directed, produced, and starred in the play, and it was clearly a labor of love. The concept and execution were both pretty ambitious, which showed throughout the production, in both good and bad ways. This play had a lot going on: a six-piece band onstage, some of whom were also actors; a full cast and storyline; a group of three dancers performing in most scenes; a chorus narrating between numbers; and not one but two Monsters (for reasons that remain unclear to me). There was a dance number with neon rope lights and mirrors on a pitch-black stage. There was a tango between Frankenstein, an androgynous and repressed lesbian, and her monster, a nearly naked woman with painted-on stitch marks and a Phantom of the Opera mask (the embodiment of her desire). There was a pregnant striptease song that featured a sequined belly and expressed a desire to “create with my mind and not just my body.” On their own, each of these things would have been pretty great (and they were), but for some reason the sum of the play's parts felt complex and hard to follow.

Although the play was an adaptation to begin with, it feels like it’s drawing from a number of other sources for inspiration as well. There are notes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show when Mascal, as a sex-obsessed and easily distracted Captain/MC, sings and dances with the recently arrived and nervous-seeming Dr. Frankenstein. There’s the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera mask and the fact that Frankenstein’s monster, in this version, wants not just companionship, but sexual gratification. And, oddly enough, there are recurring pieces that feel like nothing if not The Vagina Monologues: The performance is bookended and bisected by recordings of women’s voices (identifiably those of the cast and crew) describing their actual experiences around sex, shame, and desire. Some of the characters and scenarios, too, are reminiscent of the archetypes portrayed in The Vagina Monologues—the horny Captain, the reflective and vulnerable Mary Shelley (played by Dunn). After the final scene, in which the entire cast inexplicably dons Phantom of the Opera masks and joins hands, swaying and singing, the creators explain that they set out to portray a fully sexually empowered female, but struggled because we don’t live in a world where that can truly exist. We have to have moved beyond The Vagina Monologues in 20 years, though, right?