Frankenstein Was Misunderstood

A new production of Frankenstein brings the audience to life—as well as the misunderstood monster.

four larks cofounders sebastian peters lazaro left and mat sweeney
Four Larks cofounders Sebastian Peters-Lazaro (left) and Mat Sweeney.
GREGG SEGAL

The creature. The monster. Man’s first attempt at playing God. A metaphor for the march of industrialization. A victim of societal othering. A big green bumbling guy with bolts in his neck. The character who stumbled out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and into our cultural mythos has taken on many roles over the past two centuries, but he arrives in Beverly Hills this year reanimated anew. From February 12 through March 1, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is teaming with Los Angeles’s self-described “junkyard opera” company Four Larks to turn Shelley’s deathless creation of increasingly relevant ethical anxieties into an immersive whirl of live music, expressive dance, stunning design, and unusual narrative.

“We are sort of a big, lumbering thing,” says Four Larks cofounder Mat Sweeney by way of describing the company’s interdisciplinary approach, which yields far more cohesion than he makes it seem. In this reimagining of Frankenstein, a cast of 12 will use instruments, words, found objects, motion, and the audience to tell the story. “All at once everyone is part of an iceberg in the Arctic,” says Sweeney, “and then they’re the labyrinthine hallways of a laboratory.”

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles puts on a gory and immersive production of The Tragedie of Macbeth each year that has proven popular with audiences.
The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles puts on a gory and immersive production of The Tragedie of Macbeth each year that has proven popular with audiences.
COURTESY OF SHAKESPEARE CENTER OF LOS ANGELES

Beyond the broad strokes, Sweeney and Four Larks cofounder Sebastian Peters-Lazaro prefer to keep the details of their productions shrouded to enable new audiences to bring their imaginations with them into Four Larks’ holistic, frequently 360-degree visions. The company is known for creating moments of radical, site-specific beauty. For 2019’s Katabasis, it led crowds into the Greek underworld via the Getty Villa’s grounds at night. For 2015’s The Temptation of St Anthony, it built a set out of disused law books in the company’s 4,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown L.A. Four Larks once took over an old creamery in Oakland; another time, a multilevel carriage house in Melbourne, Australia. For years, it worked with few restrictions on its process. “No one could say ‘No, you can’t pour cement in the middle of this [deserted] auto shop,’ ” says Sweeney.

But if the Getty Villa commission was Four Larks’ coming out, Frankenstein represents its coming in from the wilderness. It’s been nearly eight years since the company’s thrown a show in a traditional space—in this case, the 150-seat black box Lovelace Studio Theater within the Wallis, an institution that occasionally shares playbills with Broadway (Simon McBurney’s The Encounter), throws concerts by the likes of Art Garfunkel, and enlists Debbie Allen to lead free public dance lessons on Sundays. Four Larks is among the center’s edgier collaborators, a possible sign that public thirst for immersive experiences—escape rooms, selfie museums, elaborate Halloween haunts—is making artistic inroads.

Four Larks cofounders Mat Sweeney (left) and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro.
Four Larks cofounders Mat Sweeney (left) and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro.
GREGG SEGAL

FEELING SOMETHING AGAIN

It’s easy to write off those other examples as frivolous fun, but Peters-Lazaro says “that whole ecosystem is important because it creates a vocabulary for people to understand what a live experience could be—something sensorial that exists all around you.” As Jon Braver, who in 2011 launched L.A.’s acclaimed interactive theater series Delusion, puts it, “There’s a backlash going on when it comes to social media and technology, how it’s supposed to bring us together but instead it’s drawing us apart. People who come to Delusion talk afterwards about how they’re making new friends and going out on adventures.… They just want to feel something again.”

The same could be said for patrons of Wicked Lit, which transforms classics from Dickens, Poe, and others into a macabre walk-through experience each fall at a mausoleum in Altadena, a town in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Or Nocturnal Fandango’s devotees, who return to the L.A. company’s unusual venues throughout the year for increasingly personalized plays typically performed to one (yes, one) ticket holder at a time. And in the style of New York’s beloved Sleep No More, even the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles has moved beyond the proscenium to convert its building and grounds into the gory, multi-set The Tragedie of Macbeth each year around Halloween. Set designer Chris Runco, an ex-Imagineer who worked on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, says the show’s success is inspiring SCLA to consider non-holiday immersive productions.

For the scrappier operations, it helps to have a fan on the inside. The Wallis’s artistic director, Paul Crewes, is the former head of England’s Kneehigh theater group, which famously created a massive modular pop-up venue called the Asylum to house the circus-like environment of its all-encompassing shows. He takes a big-tent approach to programming to lure in surprising out-of-town fare while highlighting the diversity of local creators. “There are things happening in L.A. that people are just beginning to notice. We want people to come in and feel like this can be an artistic home for them, and we’ve built that up,” he says. “The idea is that whatever you come to see, you’ll be blown away even if you don’t quite know what it is.”

A multisensory adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony, also produced by Four Larks.
A multisensory adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony, produced by Four Larks.
COURTESY OF FOUR LARKS

To think of the Wallis as a community hub isn’t such a stretch. While the center’s pride and joy is the state-of-the-art, 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater, the rest of the facility is housed within the former Beverly Hills Post Office, a historic landmark that was opened in 1934 at the behest of the wealthy young city’s then–honorary mayor, Will Rogers. Shuttered by the U.S. Postal Service in 1993, the building collected dust until the Wallis opened in 2013. Today, the post office’s walk-up window functions as a box office, the old patinated bulletin-board cases hold show posters, and the mail-sorting room is the Lovelace theater. That Four Larks is performing, once again, in a utilitarian structure turned art hub isn’t lost on the company. Nor is the fact that Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a series of letters.

Four Larks’ entire approach is built on synchronicity—all elements in constant conversation, from its typically mythical source material, to its casts of artistic polyglots, to the found objects scavenged for months leading up to a production, to the nature of the venue itself. If an actor happens to play violin, then violin is featured in the show. There are two in Frankenstein, not to mention a vintage pump organ rescued from Craigslist. Music, movement, and story are developed in tandem—meticulously, fluidly. “When you’re working in script-based theater, you wind up having to put some square pegs in round holes just to make it happen,” says Sweeney. “This process allows us to create the pegs based on the holes we have.”

Four Larks’ production of Katabasis, performed at the Getty Villa.
Four Larks’ production of Katabasis, performed at the Getty Villa.
COURTESY OF FOUR LARKS

AN UNUSUAL TAKEOVER

Four Larks’ method makes the company well suited for new-to-theater audiences who may be less interested in passively staring at a stage and are ready to be surprised. Sweeney and Peters-Lazaro have exemplified flexibility, ingenuity, and a Frankensteinian flare for collage since staging their first production in 2008. They met at UCLA and relocated to Australia with collaborator Jesse Rasmussen, who is from Melbourne. “We wanted to make work that was huge from the get-go, and no one was going to give us that platform,” says Sweeney. So they used discards from the donation center next door to turn their own home in Melbourne into a mazelike living performance space. They kept up the practice of moving into their venues until recently. “We did not live at the Getty, unfortunately,” Peters-Lazaro says with a sigh.

Still, in an unusual move for the Wallis, which hosts more than 300 performances a year, Crewes gave Four Larks a full month to settle into the Lovelace ahead of Frankenstein’s debut, to fill it with items and ideas and otherwise turn that blank slate into a small world unto itself. Even as the room’s confines make Four Larks’ latest work more physically restrained, the company has converted basic amenities—like controlling lighting and sound—into inspiration. “We’re interested in exploring the divide between an organic voice and a digitized one,” Sweeney says, “which opens a doorway to think about what Mary Shelley imagined an electrocuted, revitalized patchwork of human pieces might sound like, but against a modern canvas.”

L.A.’s interactive theater series Delusion.
L.A.’s interactive theater series Delusion.
COURTESY OF ALT DELETE

Which is to say, in an era of smart speakers that listen to our private moments, voice assistants that talk back both literally and figuratively, and advances in AI that once seemed solely the stuff of science fiction—the genre that Shelley launched in 1818 with her novel. Recast in 2020, Frankenstein’s creature seems less like a proxy for workplace mechanization and more like a query about exponential algorithmic sentience: When your computer comes to life, will you give it a hug or bash it with a stick? As our devices “learn” how to better placate us with recommendations for prestige shows, nostalgic playlists, and niche podcasts, it seems like a good time indeed to be reminded of the power of visceral human experiences—especially ones we create on our own terms.

Chris Martins is a Berkeley-born, Los Angeles–based journalist who prefers to immerse himself in new music, odd culture, and pot still rum. This is his first piece for Alta.

FRANKENSTEIN

• Feb. 12–Mar. 1
• Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
thewallis.org

RECOMMENDATIONS

Three other immersive theater experiences in Los Angeles

Delusion: Inspired equally by psychological horror, Indiana Jones, and tabletop role-playing games, this choose-your-own-adventure series has spawned multiple experiences—from an hour-long immersion within a vampire mystery (2016’s His Crimson Queen) to an athletic 20-minute time-travel mission (2019’s Alt Delete)—all set within the same fictional universe.

Nocturnal Fandango: This nonprofit company serves personal and sociopolitically provocative plays to a single audience member at a time to create a safe space ripe for reflection. Its “long-form narratives” evolve over months and culminate in field trips to places like Joshua Tree National Park.

The Tragedie of Macbeth: The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’s annual autumn haunt gets better every year and is worth the wait (2019’s walk-through performance included dungeons and bleeding walls), but the company may expand its immersive programming to bring the Bard to the people year-round.

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