Theater / Film
Zoetic Stage creates a dark, enticing ‘Frankenstein’ in time for Halloween
Gabriell Salgado plays the tormented Creature in Zoetic Stage’s “Frankenstein.” (Photo courtesy of Chris Headshots)
Unless you’re familiar with Mary Shelley’s novel about an obsessed scientist and the creature he brings to life, forget what you think you know about “Frankenstein.”
Shelley’s 1818 origin story blends gothic horror and science-fiction in the chilling tale of hubristic scientist Victor Frankenstein and the Creature he creates then abandons. Though it feels seasonally appropriate, this is not the story of a huge monster with a bolt through its neck, ala Boris Karloff in the famous 1931 movie, nor a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre like the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy, “Young Frankenstein.”
The name Frankenstein, in fact, refers to the creator, not his creation.
So it’s that “Frankenstein” – dark, intense, with echoes of Prometheus, “Pygmalion” and “Paradise Lost” – that audiences will encounter as Miami’s Zoetic Stage returns to its home in the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater this week. The play will launch the Arsht’s 2021-2022 Theater Up Close series, previewing on Oct. 14, opening on Oct. 15 and running through Oct. 31.
In rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Zoetic has waited 19 months to get back to presenting provocative theater inside the Arsht. Artistic director and company co-founder Stuart Meltzer chose British playwright Nick Dear’s 2011 version of “Frankenstein” as the piece to end the Zoetic’s transformative hiatus.
“I wanted to get back into the theater with guns a-blazin’,” says Meltzer, who turned to a play that premiered a decade ago at London’s Royal National Theatre. “I fell in love with the sparseness of Nick’s script, the way it’s lean, contemporary and direct, and the many ways you could present it.”
The National Theatre’s “Frankenstein” featured stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating in the roles of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. (Both versions of the show were filmed, to showcase the acting challenge). Meltzer deliberately avoided watching the two Danny Boyle-directed versions of the play, preferring to find his own way into the story.
“In theater, certain shows – like ‘Kinky Boots’ or ‘Rent’ – have to be done a certain way. I tend to do things my own way. It’s refreshing to work things out with a team of people,” says Meltzer. “This play has so many elements, with so many special effects involving fire, snowfall, water. I had to figure out how to do them … And I fell in love with the empathy in Mary Shelley’s story. Its themes touched me so deeply.”
Embedded in the story of an innocent Creature who learns quickly and turns deadly after being shunned by his creator and the rest of the world, those themes involve “how we treat each other, how we can easily rip each other apart out of fear, and man’s desire to act as God in creating life without divinity,” Meltzer observes.
Zoetic’s “Frankenstein” is being performed by a diverse 13-member cast. Two Cuban-American actors from Miami are playing the leading roles, and the cast mixes veteran actors and young performers, several making their professional debuts.
Gabriell Salgado, a 2019 New World School of the Arts grad, lost 20 pounds, shaved his head and will spend a little over an hour before each performance donning special makeup to help him transform into the stitched-together Creature.
The Juilliard School grad Daniel Capote, who appeared previously in Zoetic’s “The Caretaker” and “Dracula,” plays the driven title character, Victor Frankenstein.
Also in the cast are Lindsey Corey, Henry Gainza, Jeni Hacker, Barry Tarallo, Matthew W. Korinko, Seth Trucks, Donesha Rose, Imran Hylton, Ross Kaplan, Nate Promkul and Alessandro J. Lopez.
Originally, Salgado was to have made his Zoetic debut as a non-singing butler in the 2020 production of “A Little Night Music.” Then he would have taken on the larger character of a Cuban-American guy in the world premiere of Hannah Benitez’s “GringoLandia” before playing the Creature. The pandemic forced postponements and upended the order of the shows, so now Salgado is beginning with the most intense, extensive of the three parts. (He’ll still appear in the rescheduled “GringoLandia” Jan. 13-30 and “A Little Night Music” March 17-April 10.)
When “Frankenstein” begins, the focus is entirely on the Creature, who emerges from a pod or orb, knowing nothing, with the scientist nowhere in sight.
“This is the most committed role I’ve ever done,” says Salgado, who asked his former teacher, Meltzer, to mentor him at New World and beyond. “With the year gap, I let this simmer, and I feel more confident that I had all of this time to work on my craft and skills.
“I had to think about the journey that the Creature has. I lean toward him being a clean slate or a blank hard drive. He’s a boy in a man’s body, so innocent, but no one lets him in. There are not many ways that can end. It’s so emotional and sensual – it’s quite the arc. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.”
Capote, who read Shelley’s “dense, detailed” novel several times and did extensive research before beginning rehearsals, thinks “Frankenstein” is far deeper than a play about a monster.
“This is heavy and very intense, though Stuart can always find moments of humor in things. It’s not a complete horror show, like going to a haunted house,” he says. “It holds up a mirror to ugliness, hope and innocence – the whole gamut of human emotions.”
Victor Frankenstein, Capote says, is a man “who wants to be better than God, for fame, notoriety and prestige. And he’ll stop at nothing to get it.”
As the Creature acquires movement, speech, knowledge and feelings, as he reacts to the fear and rejection his appearance provokes, he demands Dr. Frankenstein create a female companion to lessen his loneliness. In her professional debut, New World grad Rose is playing that role and the part of Agatha, daughter-in-law of the blind man who becomes the Creature’s first teacher and friend.
Rose, single mom to a 4-year-old daughter, sees Agatha as “the glue who holds the family together … who does everything for everyone.” The female Creature, she feels, is “conjured in a dream by the male, as a mixture of the women he has come across after Frankenstein abandons him. He doesn’t have anyone.”
The play speaks to life today in multiple ways, she says.
“When people are not oppressed, they’re full of brotherly love. But when times are hard, you find out who your friends are. People are on edge,” she says.
Daughter of a Jamaican immigrant mom, Rose studied at New World during the years of the Trump presidency, the Black Lives Matter protests and the push for greater BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) presence in the arts. She enjoyed all the theatrical storytelling she did in school but was particularly moved by Oscar winner and fellow New World grad Tarell McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water,” which she performed in her senior year.
“Tarell writes stories that people who look like me understand. He’s successful. That’s what inspires me – I don’t feel like I won’t be heard,” she says.
Among Meltzer’s original choices in the production is the inclusion, near the end of the play, of the choral piece, “De Profundis,” by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. A version of Psalm 130 with lyrics in Latin, it requires powerful, accomplished singers – something the Zoetic cast has in abundance.
Hacker, Promkul and Gainza, for example, were in Zoetic’s Carbonell Award-winning “Sweeney Todd.” Tarallo and Gainza have performed on and Off-Broadway as well as in regional theaters throughout the country. Corey and Korinko are among the best and busiest musical theater actors in South Florida.
Gainza, who has been based in New York since graduating from the University of Miami, spent most of the pandemic here with family. He’s grateful that he can reenter the world of theater in his hometown in a pair of roles (one as a drifter, the other a grave robber) infused with a bit of humor that allows “more colors in our palette,” he says.
Healing through art and embracing laughter, he says, saved him after the death of his father in 2018. At the time, he was performing in a Milwaukee Repertory Theater co-production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”
“Laughter is what saved me. So much was going on. In retrospect, it’s what kept me sane. You heal yourself,” Gainza says.
The actor has appeared twice at Zoetic, first in the company’s 2014 musical “Assassins” (as Giuseppe Zangara, a naturalized Italian-American and would-be assassin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), then in 2019’s “Sweeney Todd” (as conniving Brit Beadle Bamford). Outside Miami, Gainza was typically cast in Latino roles as a “diversity hire,” he says. But at Zoetic, Meltzer has given him a chance to demonstrate the versatility of his talents.
“Everything I’ve seen at Zoetic reaches a level that is superior, detailed, nuanced,” Gainza says.
Given the nationwide pandemic-era reckoning over the way theater typically gets made – issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, hours, pay and more – Meltzer and his Zoetic colleagues came back to work at the Arsht trying to be and do better.
Workdays were reduced from six to five, and rehearsal hours were trimmed so that actors with side jobs could better manage their schedules. In addition to acting in the play, for example, Hacker signed on as intimacy coordinator and movement consultant to work on a pivotal violent scene involving the Creature and Corey as Victor Frankenstein’s bride.
Anthony Cabrera, artistic director of the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus and minister of liturgical arts at Coral Gables Congregational Church, came in to work with the cast on “De Profundis.” The extensive behind-the-scenes creative team also includes set designers Natalie Taveras and Jodi Dellaventura, lighting designer Rebecca Montero, costume designer Marina Pareja, makeup designer Kelly Flores, sound designer Matt Corey, stage manager Vanessa McCloskey, assistant stage manager Shannon Veguilla, fight coordinator Lee Soroko, dialect coach Rebecca Covey and COVID safety manager Annabel Herrera.
“We are working to create a sense of inclusion and ownership. To have grace when we make a mistake. To be human and respectful,” Meltzer says.
“I feel blessed to be at the Arsht and have an arts partner, to have [department director] Michael Spring and his colleagues at the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs* fight for us, to have the audience stand by us. And to have artists who couldn’t wait to get back to work at Zoetic.”
WHAT: Zoetic Stage presents “Frankenstein” by Nick Dear
WHEN: Previews 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14; opens Oct. 15 for a run through Oct. 31
WHERE: Carnival Studio Theater at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
COST: $50 and $55
SAFETY PROTOCOLS: Masks and proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test are required.
INFORMATION: 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org
*The Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs helps support Artburst Miami.