Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.”
In AMP, now playing at HERE Theater, playwright performer Jody Christopherson forges a curious and vital bond between two women separated by 100 years. The first is Mary Shelley, she whose imagination birthed Frankenstein, the classic science fiction horror, on a bet in a Geneva cottage. The second is Anna, once an aspiring cellist, now confined to an asylum outside of Boston. The two don’t appear to have much in common at first, but common truths begin to emerge as the play moves forward.
While Mary stalks the stage assembling pieces of the story of her childhood as the precocious daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin, of her abuse at the hands of her father’s second wife, and of her love affair with and marriage to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Anna remains locked on film. Her story is that of an unraveling, with intercut segments describing her removal from recess after an incident with another student—possibly and accident, possibly not—and dropped her in the school orchestra.
“No human being is born a monster, something has happened to turn this innocent child into a frightening adult.”
In both biographies, childhood talents are only just blooming when the girls fall victim to adults who deny them praise and applause, who could nurture their skills but instead choose to tear them down. The play’s title, AMP, can be read in two ways. The first is the scientific term for electric current. The second is a take on Mary Shelley’s most famous work, which features the subtitle “The Modern Promethues.”
In the Greek myth, Prometheus gives humanity fire, and is punished for the deed by being chained to a mountaintop to daily have his liver eaten out by an eagle without dying. Every night the organ regenerates for the following day’s torture. The similarity to his plight and these two women’s is that they were all set up for failure. They are all given the tools for success and then denied that success by the very people who insisted they take up the tools in the first place. That rejection or gaslighting, rightly, infuriates them. To be true to themselves, they have to break their chains and disappear into the ether.
Christopherson is a captivating performer. As Mary she exudes radiance that has nothing to do with the lightning and “laudanum.” Her cheeks are flush, her excitement palpable. As Anna, she is morose and sinister. Listening to her story, she doesn’t seem as honest and true Mary, as if there are a hundred details she refuses to admit. Yet she remains sympathetic, because like Mary and like so many women, her story doesn’t sound strange. It sounds familiar to the extreme to any woman who has been held back or told to stop being unladylike, that her interests aren’t becoming of a lady.
The stage setting is simple but very effective, a light fog hanging over all that catches the lights in ways that make it alternately hazy, dreamy, stormy. Christopherson has spliced pieces of her subjects’ work into her own, and we hear their voices cutting in to have their say every now and then. The technical skill necessary of sound designer Martha Goode to make it come together so seamlessly is incredibly impressive. Special kudos also go to director Isaac Byrne for making the video segments so genuinely, incredibly chilling.
AMP is a moving piece, with shocking moments that make it a truly visceral experience. It’s also worth experiencing as a feminist piece, of which the Marys—Wollstonecraft and Shelley—would have undoubtedly approved.
Photos by Hunter Canning
AMP Written and Performed by Jody Christopherson Directed by Isaac Byrne Playing at HERE Theater in a limited run through December 19, 2017
Growing up with Frankenstein as her father was as far from being part of a horror show as could be. That was how Sara Karloff remembered life with Boris Karloff and how he handled originating and perpetuating the scary monster that came to be known as Frankenstein.
According to Sara, her father was “the antithesis of the part he played in the 1931 classic horror movie, Frankenstein. Boris Karloff was the funniest, gentlest, kindest, quietist and most articulate English gentleman that ever lived.”
Born William Henry Pratt in England, Boris Karloff was the youngest of nine children. When asked how he got his stage name, his daughter said, “Karloff came from his mother’s family and Boris came out of thin air.” He studied for the British Council Service, but did not pursue that path. Instead he went to British Columbia where he played bit parts in eighty movies. Sara said that Frankenstein was his eighty-first film, adding, “No one saw the first eighty of them.” She said her father described his part playing extras in obscure roles as “being the third from the left in the fourth row.”
After twenty years in the business, the forty-four year-old Karloff was offered the role of a lifetime by James Whale, the English film director. My father said he was “jolly lucky to have a job,” and quickly accepted the non-speaking role of Frankenstein. “My father’s name was not listed in the movie’s opening credits and he wasn’t even invited to the premier,” she said. “No one expected the monster to be the star.” Collin Clive played the part of Dr. Frankenstein and he was slated to be the star.
Although Boris Karloff was only five feet and eleven inches tall, make-up, camera angles, shadows and two-inch high plaster boots made him appear looming. “It took four hours to apply the make-up and three hours to take it off,” she said. “Working in Hollywood during the hot month of August and wearing a dark wool suit resulted in my father losing twenty-five pounds during filming.”
After the make-up and costume came off, Boris Karloff enjoyed life on his three and one-half acre estate in Beverly Hills where he liked to garden, read and pursue his life-long passion of playing cricket. He was on the Hollywood Cricket Team. He also loved animals. At one time, the Karloff family owned twenty-two dogs and a pig named Violet.
“Always the consummate professional,” was how Sara Karloff described her father who, along with a group of other actors, founded the Screen Actors Guild as a way to give back to the profession he loved and was so grateful to have had the opportunity to work in.
Boris Karloff worked in the film industry all his life, but no role surpassed the one he created as Frankenstein, the monster put together from used body parts, which made him an overnight star.
Sara Karloff said she was nineteen years-old before she saw the movie, made in 1931, several years before she was born. “Since my father never brought his work home I was mesmerized by the role he created, but more importantly in awe of the man behind the monster. He was the least scary human being in the world.”
In addition to Frankenstein, the part that rolled out the red carpet for him, Boris Karloff appeared in many other movies, television shows, Broadway Plays, and radio shows. One of his favorite roles, according to Sara Karloff, was the aging horror film icon, Byron Orlok in the thriller Target directed by Peter Bogdanovic. It was made in 1968, just one year before Karloff’s death on Ground Hog’s Day in 1969.
Karloff also enjoyed working with other movie monsters, namely Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. “While on the set, the group played practical jokes, each trying to out-“Boogie Man” the others,” said Sara Karloff.
Keeping her father’s professional and personal legacy alive, Sara Karloff maintains a website, www.karloff.com and participates in many Halloween-themed productions (Chiller Theater at the Sheraton in Parsippany, New Jersey is hosting an event) and throughout the year speaks to Boris Karloff’s multi-generation fan-base.
Late October marks not only the advent of Halloween, but also National Frankenstein Friday on October 28, celebrating the birth of Frankenstein and his creator Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. To honor this most iconic of monsters consider watching one of the following films.
Frankenstein (1931) The original that spawned it all. Directed by the late great James Whale (Hell’s Angels, The Invisible Man) and starring the legendary Boris Karloff in the title role, it was spectacularly successful at the box office as was its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. It was ranked 27 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and the Chicago Films Critics Association has called it the 14th Scariest Movie Ever Made. The American Film Institute would also name it the #87 greatest movie of all time. Not just greatest scary movie but greatest movie period.
Young Frankenstein (1974) Directed by Mel Brooks and starring the recently deceased, and much mourned Gene Wilder as the title character; a descendant of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, and Cloris Leachman all helped round out the cast as well. To help evoke the atmosphere of the early 30’s films, Brooks made the bold move of shooting the movie entirely in black and white. It generally heads the lists of all-time great comedies and on its 40th anniversary, Brooks named it his finest (though not funniest) film.
Monster Squad (1987) In this 80’s horror comedy written by Shane Black and Fred Dekker a group of kids seek to thwart the plans of the evil Count Dracula who leads a troupe of legendary monsters including the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and of course “Frankie.” The twist here is that Frankie becomes BFF’s with a little girl, before joining the good guys in the battle against Dracula. While not especially successful when it first opened, Monster Squad has since become an acknowledged cult classic among horror buffs of all ages.
May(2002) This psychological horror film, inspired by Mary Shelley’s concept, concerns a troubled young woman named May (Angela Bettis of Girl Interrupted) whose sole ‘friend’ is a doll named Suzy. Struggling to connect with people around her, May remembers her mother’s advice – “If you can’t find a friend, make one.” Of course to do that she’ll need parts. Lots and LOTS of parts. Bettis won the Award for Best Actress at the Catalonian International Film Festival and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film. Moreover Bloody Disgusting ranked May #17 in their list of “The Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade.”
Frankenweenie (2012) This Black and White, 3-D stop motion, animated fantasy horror comedy film directed by Tim Burton was a remake of Burton’s 1984 short by the same name. Both a parody and homage to Mary Shelley’s classic, it’s voiced by Burton veterans Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, and Martin Landau. It was critically acclaimed as a welcome return to form for Burton with an 87% fresh rating on the Tomatometer, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
In Jewish folklore, a Golem is a man manifest of inanimate matter (clay) magically brought to life to serve its master. The word occurs in Psalm 139:16 as ???? (galmi; my golem), meaning “my light form”, “raw” material, referring to an unfinished human being before God’s eyes. A powerful, speechless creature, the Golem is often commanded to unsavory ends but may turn on its creator. In some tales, it demonstrates partly human feelings much as Frankenstein.
1927’s ironic Golem utilizes modern technology to its best advantage in warning us against the threats of modern technology. The story is inspired by Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 book, Der Golem, which is described as a “visionary dream” in which the figure is brought to life by ghetto need and suffering. This production reflects that all technology, all contemporary improvements are presented to us as perceived need and ostensible betterment while pervasive profit and personal advancement are downplayed. It conjectures that our helpful mechanisms may one day control us.
The Office: Will Close, Esme Appleton, Rose Robinson, Lillian Henley, Shamira Turner
“We live in a world in which people want for nothing. We are safe and secure…with leisure, pleasure and time on our hands. To understand how we live now, we need to see how things were.”
Uber-nerd Robert (Shamira Turner) lives in a house (projected) with his sister Annie (Esme Appleton) and his Grandmother (Lillian Henley.) Robert tinkers with inventions which inevitably fail (on screen, a large, mechanical bird bursts into flame when turned on) and works as a cog in The Binary Backup Department (imagine the office side of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times) where he has a crush on the equally awkward Joy (Rose Robinson.) Annie is the lead singer in an insurrectionist punk band Annie and the Underdogs, additionally comprised of Robert, Julian (Will Close) and Penny (Lillian Henley.) She also campaigns to save things. We see the actress write with an actual brush as slogans appear on screen placards. Gran knits. The silhouette of a 1900s record player emits floating musical notes.
At Dinner: Esme Appleton, Shamira Turner, The Golem, Rose Robinson
Robert goes to visit his inventor friend Phil Sylocate (Will Close) whose most recent contrivance is personal Golems. These are large, archaic looking figures with dangling penises and minimal facial expression that respond to secret invocation (we see hieroglyphs fly from Phil’s mouth into the Golem.) “It does what its Master tells it to do.” Robert purchases one and takes it home. The Golem is at first quietly accommodating, holding an umbrella over Robert’s head, knocking out an aggressive street clown, doing his master’s office work in a quarter of the time.
Suddenly the clay form starts to speak (Ben Whitehead.) Robert believes his adjutant is just “undergoing slight changes.” The being learns a great deal from watching television while the others sleep. He at first sounds paternal, then like an aggressive friend, finally affecting and discomfiting the household, Robert’s appearance, and his employment.
At Home: Shamira Turner & Golem #1; Rose Robinson & Golem 2.0
At the same time a conglomerate, indicated by ominous, whispering, nasal voices, offers to back Phil. Everyone should be able to buy his marvelous creatures; their creator will become rich. A witty parentheses shows them manufactured. But wait, just when the populous grows accustomed, it’s time for Golem 2.0 whose vast abilities begin to control everything with so-called benign advice, convincing each master he is, in fact, in charge. Robert dismisses Joy, (a scene at a dating service is a riot), rises at his company, and becomes obtusely egocentric. “I’m a modern man. I have infinite opportunities.” The snowball rolls downhill – but it’s not over yet!
Actors’ eyes are outlined in black, faces are almost white, wigs splendidly exaggerated. Sarah Monroe’s Costumes are wonderfully inventive. Paul Barrett’s illustrated scenery is appealing, a kind of dark, decorative children’s book filled with social commentary. Interaction between live actors, actors on screen, claymation and ‘drawn’ animation is skillfully and humorously coordinated offering endless surprise. Overall aesthetic combines silent films (sometimes these flicker), especially those from Eastern Europe, with Bauhaus, and Dadaist images. Our protagonist resembles Woody Allen in Sleeper.
The Office Later: Rose Robinson, Shamira Turner, Lillian Henley
Lillian Henley’s music played onstage by herself and Will Close is extremely evocative; the occasional song fits perfectly. Laurence Owen’s Sound Design could use some fine tuning. There are portions where enunciation swallows verse.
The London based, independent theater company 1927 specializes in fusing live performance, including music and song, with animation. In the guise of a fable, the eloquent Suzanne Andrade has penned a sardonic morality tale ingeniously visualized by partner Paul Barritt, played by an enlightened cast of clever cartoons, human and otherwise. Every thespian holds his/her weight in skilled mime, dialogue, and movement. A marvelously unique and entertaining evening of theater.
Photos by Stephanie Berger Opening: Will Close, Shamira Turner and The Golem
Lincoln Center Festival and 1927 presents Golem Written and Directed by Suzanne Andrade Film Animation and Design- Paul Barritt Associate Director and Design- Esme Appleton Music- Lillian Henley Dramaturgy- Ben Francombe Gerald L. Lynch Theater at John Jay College-524 West 59th Street Through July 31, 2016