Review: ‘Frankenstein’ at SF Ballet (****)

by Sean Taylor

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett's Frankenstein. (© Erik Tomasson)
Vitor Luiz in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Frankenstein returns the favor and brings Mary Shelley back to life.


The liberties taken in Frankenstein adaptations are often seemingly granted without reservation. Of course if the adaptation fails, it holds the possibility of becoming a monster that will haunt your career. In which case it may ironically uphold the very themes for which it is best known. As it turns out I do not believe San Francisco Ballet’s production of Frankenstein will be haunting anyone’s career.


This adaptation is no doubt an amalgamation of mediums, part literature, part theater, all ballet. However, unlike the monster’s, the sutures from this trifecta of artistic media never show, as the pacing is as seamless as the costumes. The set changes bring life to eighteenth century Geneva and carry the cast into vibrant living paintings of the late renaissance. Prominent shadow work is used, casting large frightful etchings of characters onto set walls, thus effecting an ode to the original tricks that classic horror films relied upon. It seemed as if no detail was spared, from the undead throbbing heart forewarning patrons of the intermission’s ending, to the deceptively deep stage harboring multiple layers and atmospheres.


Victor, the production’s lead, wears a level of despondency throughout–there is no mad scientist in this rendition of the character. Victor’s fever, rather, is his monster who begins life with the arresting movement of a single hand, and carries himself with a savage grace.


For this creature, the absence of speech that ballet requires truly works wonders. The harsh realities of his raw nature are made evident by his heavy shoulders and hands, without any cliche monster howls needed. This silencing seems to soften a classic character in literature so reviled that he is credited with the creation of horror. However, his repented lurking with the attitude of a stray dog reassures the simple curiosities and motivations of the character, and most of all, his accidental, unknowing guilt.


The reach and depth of this production allows for new and insightful ideas about a story already told a thousand times.  Liam Scarlett’s choreography is electric. I found myself checking for sparks due to the speed which which the cast moved. Matched with the music of Lowell Lieberman, the production crashes headfirst into the sharpened cliff ends of Mary Shelley’s classic tale. When Victor throws his love, Elizabeth, into the air he is no doubt throwing her the highest, and when he hits the ground, literally fighting his demons, he hits it the hardest. From the front line of players, to the minor keys, San Francisco Ballet’s “Frankenstein” harnesses a flawless integration of dancing, music, literature, and theatricality resulting in a truly astounding machine.


I highly suggest spending an evening or afternoon in Eighteenth Century Geneva. If you can’t make it, just go to the War Memorial Opera House for “Frankenstein.”


“Frankenstein” continues through February 26. For further information, click here.

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