Theater Production of Frankenstein introduces audiences to 'steampunk'

July 8, 2010

Think back to the 1999 summer film "Wild, Wild West" starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline.

Corseted but edgy gun-toting women mixed with top-hat wearing men in ascots and velvet-trimmed jackets. The film's imagery of the Victorian era seemed clear until a mammoth mechanical spider - the invention of a villain who wheeled around in a steam-powered wheelchair - attempted to destroy the heroes with his crude technology.

Twenty years later, that extravaganza of blurred time periods and technologies is now "steampunk" - a genre that inspires dress-up conventions in California for fashionistas who enjoy re-imagining where technology could have led.

It was precisely that steampunk concept that Indiana State University theater professor Chris Berchild envisioned when he began considering how he'd twist Mary Shelley's classic tale of "Frankenstein."

The script, adapted from Shelley's novel by R. N. Sandberg, has been described as a complex psychological interpretation of the original story. Set in the icy polar regions where scientist Victor Frankenstein has chased the creature he brought to life, it traces Frankenstein's path to the final confrontation with his intelligent, articulate, sensitive and violent child.

The adaption seemed perfectly suited to a steampunk interpretation, Berchild said.

"I love presenting traditional stories with a new look, feel and context," he said. "This context made sense within the realm of this play and the Frankenstein legend because it's a mixture of tradition and technology.

"So in a way, I do want to introduce the steampunk elements to audiences, but I'm not interested in doing that just for sake of introducing something new. It has to tell the story."

With a storytelling concept firmly in hand, Berchild realized he couldn't bring his fantastical vision to fruition without an expert crew, and in particular, an expert costume designer. He looked no further than his former student Claire Hummel.

There was little doubt that Hummel, a 2008 ISU Theater Department graduate now in her third year of an MFA program in costume design, could do the job, Berchild said. The two have worked together as director and designer in at least six productions.

"She has always had an amazing eye and sense of storytelling through costumes," he said. "She's never been one to shy away from taking chances, but now she's becoming even bolder with her designs. She's a great model for our students."

The 2009-2010 school year at the University of Houston gave Hummel the opportunity to costume "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as well as "Dangerous Liaisons." When she returns to Houston in the fall, she'll be working on "Richard III."

Returning to Terre Haute for the summer to help Berchild create "Frankenstein" has added to the diversity of that design portfolio. It also has presented her with an opportunity to do what she likes best.

"I quickly became excited about trying to give the classic story of Frankenstein this weird twist with this steampunk look and lifestyle," she said. "It's not just a theatrical movement. It is an outgrowth of the science fiction world."

The steampunk world Hummel imagined for "Frankenstein" includes ornate goggles with wildly colored lenses that were crafted by her father, a Terre Haute jewelry maker. She has created for the female characters earth-toned Victorian-era corsets and hats dotted with metallic gears. The monster's costume, the greatest spectacle of them all, is a brown, leather body-hugging sheath that drips with chains, belts, a shoulder harness and more industrial-age bling than a 21st century actor would know how to employ.

With the warm colors of the costumes, the cool shades of the stage, and the copper and metal of the props and set pieces converging to create this slightly askew world on stage, Berchild said his vision has now become reality.

"An idea like steampunk you could work on until the end of time trying to get it just right," he said. "But there comes a time when you have to decide what looks right and feels good and then just step back and say this is my statement."

"Frankenstein," featuring Brandon Wentz, Drew Hampton, Mark Douglas-Jones, Carolyn Rodkey and Julie Dixon, opens July 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the ISU New Theater. Additional 7:30 p.m. performances are July 10, 14, 17 and 23. A matinee performance is July 11 at 4 p.m.

Tickets are $12 and may be reserved by telephoning the New Theater box office at 812-237-3333 or by visiting the website at www.crossroadsrep.com.


Writer and contact: Rachel Wedding McClelland, assistant director of media relations, ISU Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3790 or rachel.mcclelland@indstate.edu.