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Monday, May 19, 2008


Original look at 'Frankenstein' creator, friends

Excellent cast at core of dreamy production that demands attention

By Elaine Guregian

I've never had a laudanum dream, but after seeing Frankenstein by the New World Performance Laboratory at the University of Akron's Sandefur Theatre on Saturday, I think I might be able to imagine one.

Under the artful direction of James Slowiak, the members of this remarkable ensemble created a dream world, opaque in many ways and yet crisply pointed in its details.

In the space of one hour, with no intermission, they imagined the 19th-century world inhabited by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, played with fierce focus by Megan Elk, and her emotional wreck of a husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (a laudanum fan), played here — along with the dual role of Frankenstein — by Christopher Buck.

Central to the story is the night when friends Percy, Mary, Lord Byron and Byron's lover, Claire Clairmont, have a contest to write a ghost story — a contest that leads Mary to conceive her famous novel Frankenstein. Bits and pieces from Frankenstein turn up here, along with poetry by Shelley and Lord Byron, journal entries by Mary, and texts that the performers themselves have written into the emotionally high-pitched, lusty script. Mike Geither is credited in the program as dramaturge.

It takes a while to get used to the free-form presentation. The scraps of information you glean from the characters' comments are revealing, though. When Lord Byron (delightfully foppish, and played with narcissistic glee by Justin Hale) tells Claire, ''You needn't have brought the ice. Mary can chill the wine,'' it's a reflection both of his cruelty and Mary's supposedly chilly temperament.

Debora Totti was spirited and unbowed as Claire, Lord Byron's underappreciated lover. Jairo Cuesta, pale and lithe, was riveting as the Creature. Jamie G. Hale played Elizabeth, whose role in the script was not made sufficiently clear.

This is a daring production in which characters take actual physical risks — or at least, endure discomfort — in playing their parts. Inda Blach-Geib has costumed the characters in magnificently ragged, extroverted style. Blach-Geib provided the effective scenic design as well, placing cabanas at either side of the stage (just a floor) for entrances and exits.

In addition to acting, Elk composed songs for the performance. They have a naive, spooky charm, put across as they are with conviction by the six-member cast.

A hallucinogenic atmosphere charged by excellent acting held together this collaged look at the people behind Frankenstein, but not without some effort from this audience member. A piece of advice, if you go: Read the program notes, which outline the lives of the characters. This background makes it easier — though still not easy — to follow the action.

Frankenstein would benefit from one simple convention, that of having characters address each other by name a few times early on to establish their identities. And yet, I wouldn't want to suggest much else that might tame this joyfully independent event. New World Performance Laboratory adds high-level innovation to the University of Akron's lineup of performing arts.

Elaine Guregian can be reached at


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Frankenstein (A De-Monstration)

If you live in or around Akron, do not miss this production. New World Performance Laboratory is back with another presentation of their ongoing work, Frankenstein (A De-monstration) at UA's Sandefur Theatre. You can see it once more this weekend on Friday, Oct 26th at 8 PM and again on November 1-3.

Do not expect to see anything conventional, because with this company the conventional is a dry husk that is shed again and again. They are in search of the essential. They don't "pretend," they do their actions and in the doing reach the audience in ways we hardly ever experience in the theatre. NWPL's co-directors are James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta. We are so fortunate that Akron, Ohio became the home to a theatre whose roots reach directly back to the work of 20th century theatre revolutionary, the Polish Laboratory director Jerzy Grotowski.

In this pieced and stitched together response to Mary Shelley's work, we are privy to the creation of the monster story and perhaps into the inner workings of the roving band of creative intellects that burst out of the British Isle in the But there are more monsters lurking within the dynamics of the Percy/Mary /Byron relationship and we are taken up by the very breath and heartbeat into the actions. I was very conscious of my own heart pounding as the actions intensified, which had the unusual effect of allying me with the monster. It seemed to me my heart wasn't my own at that part, and like the monster I could only wonder at the the strange organ beating inside me. It takes an amazing amount of energy and focus to create something so charged with shocking electricity.

I could not get over the shoes worn by the cast. All were wearing the most uncomfortable and unsuitable shoes, except for Frankenstein/Shelley (Chris Buck) and The Creature (Jairo Cuesta) who both were working in bare feet. Lord Byron (Justin Hale) in high heels and The Man (Alex White) in medium heeled pumps worked their change in status to perfection. The Woman (Debora Totti) wore men's dress shoes, while Mary Shelley (Megan Elk) and Elizabeth (Jamie Hale) wore tortuously high heels. This all added up to heighten the gender issues that swirled around the life and times of Mary Shelley and her comrades in art.

The costumes (Inda Geib), lighting (Christ Hariasz) and set (Benjamin Hardin) enhanced the patched-together theme of the material, which could also be a metaphor for the group's creative process. Material used for this production includes Mary Shelley's novel and journals, the poetry of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Milton, and texts drawn from Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, The Rainbow by DH Lawrence and original material written by the actors. There are references to and lines from classic horror films.

I was fortunate to see the first rendition of this piece last spring. It has grown tremendously, and yet still has that initial fire and astonishing power that made me want more at the initial viewing. I'm definitely going back for another look this time round. NWPL always delivers masterpieces that reveal more and more the deeper you look into them.

Reviews from Scene and The Beacon Journal 

Posted on Sun, Oct. 17, 2004

`Deathwatch' gritty and physical
New World Lab performance gives actors in Genet's jail their freedom

Beacon Journal

Brutality, domination, and illusion versus reality are the prevailing themes in Jean Genet's Deathwatch, which wrapped up this weekend at New World Performance Laboratory in Akron.

The show takes place within the walls of a prison cell, where three inmates alternate between being the oppressor and the oppressed as they continually manipulate and strive to dominate one another.

The tortured French playwright Genet -- known as an orphan, thief and homosexual -- knows plenty about a prisoner's psyche, considering that he spent most of his life behind bars. He wrote Deathwatch, his first play, while in prison, drawing upon criminals he knew there as well as himself for his characters. a professional, international company at the University of Akron -- has fine-tuned this highly physical piece for 18 months. Co-artistic director Jairo Cuesta and apprentices Christopher Buck and Justin Hale are featured actors.

Director James Slowiak said he chose Deathwatch because Genet has always fascinated him, and he wanted a piece that his younger actors could sink their teeth into.

Entering the Daum Theatre at the University of Akron, theatergoers sat in their traditional rows as they waited for the play to start. Just before it began, a curtain opened and we were invited to sit in the round onstage, with the actors playing to all sides.

The play, translated from the version that Genet revised just before his death, has very few stage directions. That gave NWPL plenty of opportunity to improvise on the physical component of the show, using very few props.

In this production, all three of these menacing actors pounce, push, wrestle, grab, choke and knock one another around. It's a wonder they're not all battered and bruised after each of these brutal performances.

The three characters are like caged animals. Buck's Maurice is the most sexually threatening, a manipulative troublemaker. Just watching the way he slinks around the stage made my skin crawl.

Green Eyes, played by Cuesta, has the most psychotic rantings. Cuesta offered the most powerful performance Friday evening, making clear that Green Eyes is a tortured, condemned man. Paranoia also plays a key role in his part.

Things are not what they appear in this play. For example, the murderer Green Eyes is elevated to hero status. In addition, Hale's Lefranc is supposed to be the smartest of the three, but is he?

Don't expect a traditional plot here: Genet's theater is the theater of the absurd. This may seem simply like art for art's sake, until you look deeper.

Genet's writing relies heavily on ritual. The inmates' talk has plenty of repetition. Waves of attempted domination are interrupted by a bell, which Slowiak rings from slightly offstage. After each ringing, the characters freeze and then begin to shift their alliances.

At one point, all three actors enter into a sort of tribal ritual, with Hale pounding his fists on a bench as Cuesta and Buck dance wildly around. The activity is so frenzied and forceful, I half expected to see Hale's fists bloodied.

This is savage, grotesque material that's hard to stomach. The ugly language and content is meant for adults.

But one thing I can respect is how skillfully the NWPL actors have honed their physical craft, a trademark of their company. Those who didn't catch the Akron performances will have a second chance to see the piece in performances at Cleveland Public Theatre starting Nov. 4.

Theater critic Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or by e-mail at

Stretch to Fit
Two challenging productions release fresh energies and new perspectives.

Deathwatch and Stairway to Paradise
Through November 12, 330-867-3299
Where: Presented by New World Performance Laboratory at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue
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From the Week of Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Marvelous and Mediocre
Convergence-Continuum garners a split decision.

On Stage
On Stage
Capsule reviews of current area stage shows.

On View
On View
Capsule reviews of current area art exhibitions.

Just as it's good to stretch after a long sleep, it's often a fine idea to extend one's theatrical intake and loosen up some of that calcified brain matter. New World Performance Laboratory, led by co-artistic directors James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta, presents aggressively different works that certainly fill that bill, and two of them are now being performed in repertory at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Deathwatch, by famed French playwright and habitual felon Jean Genet, is a meditation on loneliness and despair, as seen through the eyes of three caged men -- prisoners of the state and their own limited worldviews. The cell is dominated by the brutal Green Eyes, a murderer who will be executed in two weeks. He is alternately wooed and tormented by both Maurice, an effeminate inmate, and the intellectual George, who writes and reads the correspondence of Green Eyes, since the latter is illiterate. Like tarantulas trapped in a small box, all three men are attempting to survive, using whatever mental skill, physical presence, or shifting personas they can summon -- a neat metaphor for life, in or out of the slammer.

Three powerful, enormously visceral performances by Cuesta (Green Eyes), Christopher Buck (Maurice), and Justin Hale (George) are diluted by several factors. Director Slowiak has set the action on a large square of clean white carpeting that, along with a crisply painted platform in the center, makes the space look more like a suburban patio than a penitentiary. Also, the hovering presence of a mostly silent guard, who would have given the piece a much-needed oppressive tone, has been eliminated. Cuesta is the most physically compelling actor of the three, but his accent makes a number of his lines indistinguishable, taking the punch out of Genet's quicksilver wit.

Stairway to Paradise, intriguingly subtitled "A Cabaret Soul Journey," is a slender piece assembled by Slowiak and solo performer Megan Elk. Blending a mystical fable with songs from some renowned pop composers (Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin), the show intends to track the trip we all hope to take in one way or another: leaving home, facing challenges, and finally returning as a hero.

While this thematic goal is only partially realized, Stairway has a rather hypnotic, ethereal quality that is strangely captivating. The effect is due in large part to Elk's tenderly observed stylings, with the spare accompaniment of only a drum (yes, a drum). Many of the songs are unfamiliar tunes from the pop songbook, including the amusing "Jenny, Bright as a Penny" written by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin. But Elk uses her lovely soprano voice to infuse each tune with such honest emotion that it's impossible not to join her on this trek. Even though the integration of the song subjects with the story is often either obscure or obvious -- when the protagonist is warned about consorting with inhabitants in the land of darkness, it's followed by "Blues in the Night" -- Elk's performance, supported by percussionist Ronald Martin, never loses its hold. | originally published: November 10, 2004