Frankenstein: A Cabaret is a modern-day folk-opera about female sexuality, desire and creativity.
Much grabs the attention in The Broken Planetarium’s presentation of Frankenstein: A Cabaret even before the show starts. On Thursday night, as I sat waiting for the performance to begin, my eyes darted to and from the bouncing, fleshy, stage-lit cleavage of co-producer and performer Maggie Mascal. I’m alone and avoiding my phone, so I sit awaiting a show about female sexuality feeling equally bashful and mesmerized by the nearly ungovernable — even when lacking lust — pull of very large breasts. She sits on stage and surveys the small crowd during a pre-show talk, ogling us like she’s picking out who to seduce, just short of licking her bright red lips as rosy as her rouged cheeks.
Mascal introduces herself as the captain of this cabaret, which takes place on the top of Mt. Hood in present day and adopts the story of Mary Shelley’s 18th century novel, Frankenstein. It provides a compelling metaphor for the topical script written by Laura Christina Dunn, who also portrays Shelley. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster; female sexuality is encountered as a monster. It instills fear, it is isolated, and hundreds of years after Shelley’s debut, women express shame, confusion and embarrassment about the existence of their sexual drives.
These were not my expectations or thoughts going into the play but I suppose these opinions are buried in me as well, as a woman, because I reacted viscerally to the play’s opening set, although unclear to the degrees of my own shame. The lights go dark and we hear the recorded voices of several women speaking about sex: trapped in their lives trying to be desired, angst or regret about past sexual experiences. One woman says, “I wear those tight pants for me, I got a cute booty I want to show off!”
When the lights come back on, there was Maggie again and the story of Frankenstein begins. Her sex is in your face. Not as opportunity or attraction, but as reality, as something to talk about, and not just react to. She inhabits it naturally, it is within her as a woman, but at other times she exploits it and plays with it. Sex as a spectacle — a car wreck or a shooting star — however your instincts or conditioning shape how you see it. And it is not only represented physically but intellectually, namely by Shelley who asks us to think about the role of sexuality and desire in creation, and our relationship with that creation, whether a story, art, our self image and/or a monster.
Mascal is great in her role. I would see anything she performs in. She has a lovely voice, she is magnetic, and funny. She turns each joke in Dunn’s witty script like she’s been drawing out her “comes” to insinuate inappropriately and lasciviously at sexual climax and tossing teasing winks for her entire life.
The cabaret is fun to watch, the costumes, make-up, and contemporary dance make for voluptuous visuals along with the often near-nude, painted bodies crowding the stage. The women are of all different sizes, and my eyes follow the sharp lines of the petite dancers as well as the skin folds of the curvier woman, like the creation Monster 2 played by Caitlin Nolan whose voice is as delicately strong as Judy Garland’s.
Matching this abundance is the folk-opera musical score. The operatic voices are backed by a band in the corner. Monica Meltzer plays on a djembe drum and hums lightly to it, Athan Spathas gives harmony with the accordion, and Chelsea Uniqorn plays the electronic theremin, which sounds like the distant howl of wolves, in and out of several scenes. The music shifts between upbeat hearty folk to eerily ambient, without feeling disjointed.
Female sexuality is a blurted curse word in a kindergarten classroom, something to be controlled, something to banish. How is this monster created and for whom? Sometimes I don’t know where we are in the conversation of feminism and sexuality, or I don’t know where I am — I have felt bound to its werewolf tendencies, and a wavering range of judgement and liberation.
Often our versions of female empowerment come to look so similar to that of female subjugation and the conversation is a spiral of self-justification. Just like last year with What Is Erotic, another Fertile Ground Festival show, Frankenstein: A Cabaret digs at this conversation and tries to unravel that spiral. Shame and fear come into the conversation as being catalysts for sexual freedom, they are confronted and challenged and the result is a kind of remorselessness about sex which allows something to unshackle itself in the performances. I’m not sure what it is but it is not just talk with Frankenstein: A Cabaret, it is about creation and participation.
Frankenstein: A Cabaret runs once again tonight and Sunday. It’s sold out but if you show up, you may luck out and get a seat. Check the link below for venue information and times.
Correction: The original article stated that Ali Diana portrayed Monster 2. Caitlin Nolan portrayed Monster 2.