Fittingly, the Coterie's 24th season begins after a significant transformation. There's a bigger stage and more seats as well as classroom space and a huge new lobby designed by Gary Wichansky. He is also the talent behind Frankenstein's set, a cunning environment that represents the mad scientist Victor (Charles Fugate) and his towering creation (Kyle L. Mowry). At one end of the stage is a massive slab of faux concrete without one nick or cut; at the other, the facade has been sliced and mutilated to reveal its skeleton. The design epitomizes what happens when you mess with nature.
Victor and his girlfriend, Elizabeth (Sarah Crawford), are bewitched by each other and their macabre ideas -- the Sid and Nancy of reanimation. Their proteges, Henry (Johnathan Shannon) and Justine (Angela Wildflower Polk), bask in their dark aura like freshmen to upperclassmen. But the scenes remind you of employees who always look busy but don't produce many results -- you wonder why they're there. And Victor's scenes with blind Professor Walden (Walter Coppage) are more of the same, like the long line at an amusement park prior to the thrill ride.
What we're waiting for finally reveals itself thanks to the Coterie's new turntable. Victor's lab is dense and spooky, crackling with the weird energy of a raving lunatic. Instead of a huge tank, there is a coffinlike contraption center stage; steam shoots out of blowholes drilled in its side when the creature begins stirring. Then we see it -- the hand creeping over the top, giving the monster leverage to stand up and start the play.
Despite Mowry's gargantuan presence (it seems the Coterie raised its ceiling just to accommodate him), the story sticks to a pedestrian map of monster movies. He escapes the lab, and everyone runs around asking where he went. It's not until the creature squeezes the life out of Justine that the show's potential exerts itself. Man -- or variations thereof -- cannot live by bread or entrails alone; there's the pull of the hungry heart.
Cynthia Levin's direction is formidable, and the creative team makes Frankenstein a design triumph. Between Wichansky's set, Art Kent's lighting and David Kiehl's sound, there's no mistaking that we're in some kind of borderless hell. Jennifer Myers Ecton's costumes are cauterized of all color except black; it's a goth paradise. And Andrew Chamber' makeup design for Mowry is hypnotic. The monster's head is composed of various skin tones and sutures, like a Benneton baseball. There's even a black patch at the crown, as if this multicultural cat is wearing a permanent yarmulke.
The actors are commendable considering the thudding lines they're handed. But they're trussed to a show that never kicks into anything mind-blowing; it's neither unbridled camp nor unnerving horror. It's a melodrama made of Halloween candy. Post Script: The most prominent woman on the theater scene this year is turning out to be that plucky Joan of Arc. Fans will first be able to absorb her straight-up with Missouri Rep's production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, beginning October 25. Later this winter, the newest theater company in town, Princess Squid Productions, gives her an alternate take in a "rock and roll show" with music by Jan Appell, a former member of the band Sweet Kitty.
Appell cowrote the show with actor Michael Smith, late of the Coterie's Alexander and the ... Very Bad Day. Princess Squid is the brainchild of Smith and Kara Armstrong, an assistant director at this summer's Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. They say their mission is "to break down the boundaries between the performing arts, using techniques from the past and present to propel theater into the future." "Jehanne la Pucelle, which translates into Joan the Maid, is really a dual story," Smith says. "We're looking at the differences between her war and our current one. And how legends are born and the media's role in that."
Interested parties can get a hint of Princess Squid's sensibilities at a benefit show Monday, October 7, at Davey's Uptown (3402 Main). In addition to performances by such actors as Teri Adams, Missy Koonce and Scott Cordes, Smith says there will be "a film and performance-art pieces." The show kicks off with a silent auction around 7:30 p.m., and $10 gets you in the door.