Went to The Kitchen Saturday for the opening night of Radiohole’s newest work Inflatable Frankenstein. It was an incredible return to form – or maybe next step – for one of my absolute favorite performance groups. After Whatever, Heaven Allows (that felt rather inert & lifeless to me, not my favorite Radiohole piece at all) it was unclear what was next for this intrepid ensemble. Life changes, babies, less drinking, more business-y responsible grown-up behavior, more ambitious technology – what would it all mean? How would it all end up? Well if Inflatable Frankenstein is any indication, it is all going to end up very well. Clocking in at a trim 60 minutes, the piece is taut, lean and focused and moves forward at a steady pace. Ambitious in scope and precise in execution, Frankenstein is my favorite piece since 2006’s Fluke.
For Frankenstein the ensemble expanded beyond core founders Maggie Hoffman, Eric Dyer, Erin Douglass & regular collaborator Joseph Silovsky to include Ryan Holsopple (who is quickly becoming a go-to collaborator for many groups) and Mark Jaynes along with DJ Shark (Aaron Harrow?) and a wide assortment of “behind the scenes” folks to create what I thought was their most beautiful, technically accomplished production yet.
As the title implies, the show is a riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, exploring the autobiographical elements of the text, the proto-feminism, the epistolary form of the novel, the distance between the novel and the popularization of the images of the creature from Boris Karloff to today. In the opening “panel discussion” segment of the performance they note that a central section of the novel is the story told from the perspective of The Creature – which is markedly different from books like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and, also, future incarnations of the story of Frankenstein’s monster. The fact that the creature has a voice and it is one of deep pain and distress, is remarkable and troubling.
In this production The Creature is embodied by Eric Dyer in a remarkably restrained and (dare I say it?) poignant performance where his actual face is rarely, if ever, seen. He descends from the ceiling from a plank on a winch, his next scenes are played with his face projected onto the back of his bald head and he soon disappears upstage to be seen only in video and in shadowy form from within the inflatable creature.
Maggie and Erin, both now mothers and Erin with another baby on the way, infuse their text with their experiences of birth and motherhood as only Radioholes could. The stage tricks are there – inflating, exploding balloons, technological “work stations”, microphones, choral recitation – but they are more precise than ever. While Radiohole still resists any kind of conventional narrative and enjoy oblique word play, intimating meaning rather than declaiming it loudly, it seems that they are editing more tightly than ever before. We can see a bit more clearly the operation of the text in defining scene, place and character, linking abstract ideas to the original novel and personal stories. Erin and Maggie switch characters from squealing 19th century teen girls going through the “poets” section of the White Pages to prank call poet-boys to mothers of children from the womb untimely ripped, interpolating themselves and their experiences. They are easily the most complicated characters in the piece.
In contrast to Maggie & Erin, Silovsky, Jaynes and Holsopple perform as a trio of bumbling men, the controllers of Shelley’s life and the fraudulent egotistical “heroes” of the novel. They are caricatures, outlines, broad comic sketches of men playing at science, honor and adventure. Silovsky is the nerdy, uptight professor; Jaynes the dashing but clueless hero who, even in the introductory section, can’t help cutting off the women as they speak to “mansplain” what they really think; and Holsopple is the affable, dorky, goof, always up for an adventure and never quite getting it right. In one scene Silovsky leads a hilarious tutorial on how to grow a brain in a petri dish which at once hearkens back to Radiohole’s gloriously messy and tactile practice while being much of focused, precise and blatantly comic.
And then there’s Eric as The Creature. A troubled and troubling spectre, never quite fully realized, never quite fully there. He enters from the sky and lurks in the background, always present, always looming, infusing the air with his haunted and hunted mien, desperately wanting to be a part of the world of normal society but doomed to exile on the cold fringes beyond the warmth of the fire, ever looking in at the rosy-cheeked children and their doting parents warming by the fire in the hearth. He is the flawed creation of one man’s great ambition, an abortive attempt at immortality, embodying the price of hubris, wandering the earth a perpetual reminder of the dark side of human accomplishment. In the end he is subsumed in the myth of what he really is, literally engulfed in the organs of a massive inflatable creature, referencing meat but full of hot air.
It is pretty stunning.
Inflatable Frankenstein is Radiohole in fine form. The production displays all of their technical mastery in full form – the exceptional sound design, the lighting, video and mechanical wizardry all work together perfectly. They are using the iPod wrist controllers first introduced in Whatever, Heaven Allows but seemed to have worked out the bugs in the system – or just become more fluent with them. Adding a DJ to the whole process enables their sound scape to be a bit more precise and edited, which serves the production as a whole. While I will always love the Radiohole of None Of It, Radiohole Is Still My Name and Fluke, I am very excited to see this “new” version of Radiohole. Sometimes professionalization and formalization kills the spirit of an ensemble or artist, but in this case I think it is actually enabling them to make work that really demonstrates the depth of their thinking and the extent of their skill as performers, technologists and artists.
On a total side note – it is interesting that Radiohole has engaged with literature probably just as much as Elevator Repair Service but is more in context at The Kitchen, while ERS is more in context at The Public. Discuss.