June 6, 2013

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Theater for the New South takes on “Monster”

It’s almost 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, and director Blake Harris is giving notes to the cast of “Monster,” Theater for the New South’s production that opens June 7. A large unpainted platform occupies most of the middle of the UTC Studio Theatre staging area. Some cast members have on bits of costume pieces, others are in casual rehearsal wear. 

It’s the fact that they are in a theatre at all that’s out of the ordinary for Harris and TNS. The company has become known for productions in “found spaces,” and, Harris says, its followers have come to expect that.

But Neal Bell’s “Monster,” which premiered off-Broadway in 2002, has technical demands that require an actual theatre, he says. “In particular, we needed lighting, because Bell’s adaptation is faithful to the original Mary Shelley story—except,” he says, “that the playwright has imposed an ending on it.”

Of course, ever since Shelley’s novella was published in 1818, its most intriguing idea has been: Who is really the monster? Is it the being created from human cadavers? Is it the scientist attempting to play God? Is it the onlookers, so terrified of anything they can’t explain that their only impulse is to destroy it? Or is it, asks Harris, the readers, and in this case, audience members?

“Monster,” as Harris describes it, is a memory play, Victor Frankenstein’s memory of these people and events. Set in the period in which it was written, the production will nonetheless meld “period” costumes with the imagination of designer Angela Sweet and classical music with that composed for the production by Tim Hinck.

“For this show, we have lighting, set, costumes, sound and music designers,” says Harris. “We asked all these collaborators to challenge themselves,” in working within the experimental mission of TNS.

“And what better way to end our season two,” says Harris, “than with a play that is about an experiment?”

The connection makes even more sense if you consider that the “monster” is constructed and brought to life in Victor Frankenstein’s version of an “operating theater.” “We are treating this theatre just like a found space,” says Harris. 

He’s also fascinated with the story’s theme of isolation. “In Shelley’s own time, if you lived in a rural area, you were very isolated from other people. I’ve been exploring isolation with the characters of Victor and Elizabeth,” he says. “What happens when the natural is made unnatural?”

In approaching the play with his actors, Harris allowed an acting style to evolve. “There are projects I go into already having the style I am seeking,” he says, “but that didn’t seem to fit this show. This became an organic process, and we discovered a kind of disconnect that has created its own style.”

Ultimately, audience members seeing “Monster” will deal with the most basic of all questions. “This story is primal; it asks, ‘What is it to be human?’” Harris says. And in Bell’s version, “it’s the undercurrents of the story that will catch people off guard.” In a world where human cloning is, in fact, possible, and where artificial intelligence grows ever closer to sentience, its questions go far beyond even Mary Shelley’s nightmare inspiration.


Theater for the New South, 

7:30 p.m. June 7- 8, 13-16, 

Jim G. Lewis Studio Theatre, UTC Fine Arts Center, 

Vine & Palmetto Sts. 

(423) 503-0589,


June 6, 2013

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