The spotlight shines on two men hovering on the bow of their ship, contemplating how no man goes to hell before his time. And so begins “Monster,” Theater for the New South’s concluding production of the company’s second season.
“Monster” opened Friday night at the Jim G. Lewis Studio Theater in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Fine Arts Center.
When: Thursday-Sunday, June 13-16, 7:30 p.m.
Where: 736 Vine St.
How much: $15
The play was written in 2002 by Neal Bell, a professor of theater at Duke University and an old hand in the New York City theater scene, as an adaptation of the 19th-century classic “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley.
As Blake Harris, show director and Theater for the New South’s resident director, explained, the text is focused on exposing the underlying tones of sexuality and humanity inherent but often overlooked in Shelley’s original work.
“Unlike other productions where it just focuses on the creature, we actually have the iceberg scenes,” said Harris, referring to scenes in which Victor Frankenstein recalls his life and creation of the monster. “So we get to have that fun of 'What does the past look like?' and 'What does the present look like?' and delve into that psychology.”
“Monster” is the first memory play—a piece in which the plot revolves around or consists entirely of a memory—Theater for the New South has tackled.
It required the company to dream up smooth transitions between the present, in which characters are located on an iceberg; and the past, located in a family home, a cellar laboratory and several other locations throughout Europe.
Thanks to a smidge of lighting and set ingenuity, the company constructed a collection of picture frames within a large-scale frame decked out with LED lights. In practical terms, the concept will allow individual and lit-up pictures to provide cues as to the scene’s location.
The production also introduced Harris and his colleagues to the issue of bulk ordering latex body paint. Making the monster involves a one-and-a-half to two-hour makeup session in which a massive amount of blue paint and cloth swatches with stitches are applied all over the actor’s body.
The company turned to bulk ordering after exhausting the inventory at every Chattanooga-area costume store. Such are the problems in the pursuit of nailing the perfect monster.
“Art should transform,” said Mac Smotherman, head of the UTC Department of Theatre and Speech. “The experience becomes unpredictable, unexpected, new. As an audience, we are not sure what to expect. Being part of, witnessing, such a theater event creates an immediacy and more personal experience for an audience. It’s great to have such work continuing in Chattanooga. I hope more groups will emerge with such strong visions.”
Several members of Theater for the New South are current students or graduates of the UTC program and, with this production, are returning to a very familiar place.
“Monster” marks only the second time the company is utilizing a designated theater space. Previous spaces include an art gallery, loading dock and a vacant restaurant.
Before Theater for the New South was officially established, the group staged Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck” in the Fine Arts Center’s studio theater. Harris noted that air conditioning, an in-place lighting system and the convenience of an outfitted shop next door have been welcome elements of this space.
And though the theater is a shift from the typical homes for the company and a full-circle celebration of the end of its second season, “Monster” is, above all, an expression of Theater for the New South’s driving force.
“In our mission statement, we talk about how we want to tear down the preconceived notions of what theater is,” Harris said. “This is kind of our litmus test—we’ve invited you to warehouses and all these crazy locations; well, now, we are going to be in a theater and can surpass what you thought theater was.”