Review: Frame of Reference Elevates an Already-Popular Story with Gods & Monsters Adaptation in World Premiere Production

Some properties exist on a Wheel of Fortune spinner of adaptations. The Producers was a movie, then a musical, then a movie. Mean Girls lived the same life. Beetlejuice has begun its transmogrification, and even a bizarre property like American Psycho has survived a book-movie-musical treatment. Chicagoans eager to find another addition to the spinning wheel should look to this world premiere of Gods & Monsters by Frame of Reference Productions, produced by Frame of Reference Productions at Theater Wit. The play is written for the stage by Thomas Mullen and directed by Paul Oakley Stovall.

Gods & Monsters is based on the 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, which was the basis for the 1998 Bill Condon film Gods & Monsters. This production, like the other versions, follows James Whale (Scott Westerman), the long-retired director of Frankenstein, as he forms an unlikely bond with his gardener Clayton Boone (Rashun Carter) while recovering at home from an illness.

Unlike the previous versions, this one casts Boone as a Black man, adding a stimulating element of social commentary to an already strong story. Though some of Whale’s predacious scheming is out of step with modern tastes, the show is overall a compelling and enlightening piece of entertainment.

Rashun Carter. Photo by Elizabeth Stenholt.

When the action begins, famous and financially “comfortable” former film director James Whale has recently suffered, as he puts it, “A touch of stroke,” which has left him “Overcome with nostalgia.” Trapped by restlessness and disturbing World War One dementia flashbacks, fearful his condition will only worsen with age, he tries to escape his desperate existence by chatting up whatever young men enter his mansion.

This aspect of Whale’s character, by the way, his lecherousness, is the most tonally confusing part of the play. The treatment is a little too lenient, maybe even apologetic, to pass in this #MeToo era. For how evolved the production is on the topic of race, it falls behind in how it deals with, for lack of a better word, “the casting couch.”

In an early scene, a gay college student, Edmund Kay, played by Ethan Check, comes to Whale’s home to conduct an interview. Whale agrees to truthfully answer anything so long as Kay removes an article of clothing for each question. “My life is a game of strip poker,” Whale says.

This is weird, right?

Whale’s behavior during the interview could be described as flirtatious, if we’re being generous, or predatory, if we’re being honest. But rather than be repulsed by his approaches, the audience is invited to see him as arch, friendly, sly. “You’re a dirty old man,” the student teases.

It’s a messy point in an otherwise stellar show. It asks us to make the error in judgment so many experience in real life: to forgive any misbehavior so long as the offender is charismatic . Thankfully, this is only in the beginning. The real story begins with the introduction of Whale’s Black gardener, Clayton Boone, played with striking sincerity by Carter.

Shortly after the episode with the student, Whale approaches Boone outside his home and offers to pay the gardener to pose as a sketch model. Whale tells Boone he isn’t interested in him romantically, though it’s clearly a lie. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that is constantly tested by Whale’s sexual obsession.

The chemistry between our leads is as remarkable as it is unlikely. Scott Westerman and Rashun Carter put in two distinct and distinctly different performances. Westerman’s Whale speaks with a high-class British flair that seems more in line with the movies of his era than with how a real person talks. It’s not quite Transatlantic, but it’s a close cousin. Meanwhile Carter’s Boone is naturalistic, so authentic one forgets he is anything but himself on stage.

Michael Stejskal, Scott Westerman, and Rashun Carter. Photo by Elizabeth Stenholt.

It’s an odd combination that maybe has no right working as successfully as it does. The show is like an experiment wherein old Hollywood acting pairs with the hyper-realistic mumble performances of today. It’s a lovely duet which carries the bulk of the production.

The dialogue between the two is at times genuinely witty:

“Why do they call it a ‘roach clip?’” Whale asks as he smokes marijuana.

“Maybe because potholder was already taken,” Boone says. This got a big laugh. Maybe you had to be there.

And at other times tragic, like when Whale bemoans his unrequited love, “Disgust, fear, all part of that great gulf between us.”

It’s an intimate show insofar as it’s about a very particular relationship. But the issues handled in the story, namely race and sexuality, put it in dialogue with much larger forces.

By recasting Boone as Black, Gods & Monsters accomplishes something very few adaptations can: it justifies its own existence. It adds a rich and scintillating component to a familiar story. The production elevates the material into something new.

When Boone talks to Whale about his Frankenstein films, he reflects on the similarities between the mob’s attack on the Monster and his own treatment as a Black man. He describes the Monster’s flight from the angry mob as “basically a lynching.”

Sometimes Boone’s analysis seems a little more academic than his character could reasonably accomplish. But because his thoughts are so fascinating and powerful, I can allow that concession to reality. There’s just too much to like about the show.

Gods & Monsters is ultimately an entertaining, thought-provoking production. Every performance is fully developed and well-crafted. There is no weak link in the cast. Doreen Calderon’s turn as the maid Maria was constantly surprising and earnest; she was somehow the comic relief and heart of the show.

From a technical standpoint, there’s much to commend. The play adopts some creative  approaches to portray the slip-slide nature of Whale’s troubled mind, using clever tricks to make the internal externally realized.

For example, when Whale falls into psychosis, projected images on stage take on grotesque qualities. Camera flashes to replicate paparazzi harassment, blurry faces. It’s psychedelic and visually interesting. Scenic designer Ben Lipinksi and projection designer Michael Sobie deserve a shoutout for their work.

As I said earlier, the production’s greatest sin is committed quickly in the first act, when Whale’s lasciviousness comes on a little strong. Everything after that is golden. Theatergoers who can handle a moment of discomfort, and maybe excuse the scene as a vestige of the older source material, will be amused plenty by what comes next.

Gods & Monsters by Frame of Reference Productions continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, thru Sunday, June 2. Running time is 90 minutes without an intermission. Ticket prices range from $12.75 to $47.75.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Adam Kaz