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Seeing with Our Ears: A Review of A. S. Peterson’s Frankenstein

The country of radio theater has long been depopulated, but still its fields are fertile as ever they were. There, the imagination grows high, strengthened by roots which must dig deep to find purchase. Artists and craftspeople have long known: a good way to enrich one’s work is by limiting materials. Take away a color or two from your palette. Use only hand tools on your woodwork. Cook your meat plain, with heat, smoke, and nothing else. In radio theater, we forego our eyes; therefore our minds rocket into the realms of possibility.

So goes A. S. Peterson’s Frankenstein.

Produced by Oasis Audio and Rabbit Room Press, Peterson’s stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel is now available in audiobook form. Released just in time for Halloween, it’s fitting for any season of the year. With the sound effects, the music, and the heart-turning work of original cast members Jared Reinfeldt, Euriamis Losada, and Morgan Davis, it serves as a fresh spin on the classic monster story.

Mary Shelley’s novel is a curious narrative to adapt. While it has a long history of adaptation—the first play premiered in 1823—the original material, published in 1818, is highly literary for today’s audiences. Furthermore, it’s told by multiple narrators in retrospect, or through the proxy of personal letters. Shelley rather mutes the action in favor of an emotional inner narrative. Peterson manages to balance both styles, the original and his own fresh take, and keep listeners on the edge of their seats. He couches the story within a well-spun courtroom drama on the north-bound ship, keeping the first-person narratives as bookends and markers and delving seamlessly into the adventure we would expect from a tale of travel, deep ethics, and supernatural science.

Inevitably, retellings of Shelley’s tale tend toward such creative liberties. Peterson’s play in particular leans heavily into the metaphysical and Biblical themes that Shelley only brought out to a point. Personally, Mary Shelley was demonstrably irreligious, though she both maintained an obvious sense of moral injustice about some issues and, exacerbating her unflattering image, suffered the postmortem indignity of historians making much ado of the more lurid details of her life. Her storytelling borrows generously from Enlightenment philosophy, even at times seeming to hold any Biblical source material at arm’s length. Peterson’s exploration of the text focuses in on the narrative of God and Adam as the pattern of Frankenstein and his creature.

Don’t try and listen to this while you’re washing dishes or folding laundry. You’ll stop your work, I promise you. This rendition is worth every minute of a quiet evening, seated with a cup of tea, eyes closed in rapt attention. The performance is completely immersive, brilliantly edited to be set against the creaking of a ship, the singing of birds, and the sounds of various chambers. Listening in stereo is helpful as well, as the tracking and mix-work is such that one can hear the characters speaking from different places in and out of rooms.

As with all good stories, this one walks easily upon ground where sermons may falter, leaning into the imagination to ease open our painted-shut windows onto a true country. Adam Whipple

Jared Reinfeldt as Victor is wonderful at maintaining a sense of emotional continuity amid differing timelines, incrementally working the good doctor to a fever pitch of professional, then fearful, obsession. Euriamis Losada proves himself an able character actor and a powerful explorer of the human psyche as the creature. The role is so obviously outsized, often in danger of being made cartoonish, but Losada brings gravitas and humanity. Where Shelley’s written creature requires a few imaginative gymnastics to believe its motivations, Losada’s portrayal, bolstered by Peterson’s text, is all too believable, his character’s sins all too ubiquitous. Peterson roots the character in the moral fabric that Shelley seemed at times to eschew.

Particularly plaintive is the journey of Morgan Davis’s Elizabeth. Her grace both with Victor and with his creature is the keystone of Peterson’s invention and adaptation. She alone looks the creature full in the face and grants him humanity. This might be the best fruition of the feminism inherent in Shelley’s writing. If her novel fought for the rights of women simply by dint of its author’s gender, Peterson’s treatment fights for women’s humanity by having a woman as its most ardent champion of the Image of God in mankind. Elizabeth recognizes the creature as a person, the Adam so reluctantly alluded to in the original book.

Additional moments that give life to the story are the family scenes and the foreshadowing dialogue of the shipmates. The world feels so real, having just enough detail to leave the listener wanting more.

The whole performance clocks in at just over two hours, but its scenes are divided helpfully into tracks. As with all good stories, this one—Shelley’s, Peterson’s—walks easily upon ground where sermons may falter, leaning into the imagination to ease open our painted-shut windows onto a true country. To see this as a spectacle on the stage is magnificent, but now, to see it in our minds at any time, is a gift.

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