‘Frankenstein: A Cabaret’ is a modern feminist take on an old tale
The mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein as played by Melia Hadidian Tichenor (far left) and choreographer Rebekah Stiles (right) with cast. Photo credit: Laura Hadden.
Celeste is an editor at OF NOTE Magazine and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working on her book of short stories or interviewing social entrepreneurs, she occasionally participates in modern life and tweets @celestehdennis.
October 31, 2016
For Laura Dunn, creator of the all-women folk opera “Frankenstein: A Cabaret,” the show is first and foremost a love letter to her friend Maggie Mascal.
“She’s someone I’ve always been in awe of. In the show, Maggie plays a very empowered, desiring female, “ said Dunn in an interview with ivoh. “That’s so brave to be in the world. And it’s weird you have to be brave.”
Dunn believes there’s a lack of sexually and creatively confident images of women in media. Set in Portland, Oregon, the cabaret seeks to create these images in a contemporary context.
Through irreverent jokes, in-your-face sensuality, and sultry dancing to original music, “Frankenstein: A Cabaret” explores the idea of yearning, and how women navigate this oft confusing territory. It’s unapologetic in confronting the doubled-edged message that our culture so frequently sends: desire is dangerous yet women should be desirable.
The cabaret debuted this past January in Portland, Oregon as part of programming for the recently official nonprofit Broken Planetarium. Home to a monthly themed arts night hosted by Dunn, who is a poet and musician, Broken Planetarium welcomes anyone wanting to explore their creative side.
“Frankenstein: A Cabaret” was born out of this collective and for Dunn, initially started as a joke, an offhand comment she made about how funny it would be for “Frankenstein” to be burlesque. But then she couldn’t stop looking at the novel on her bookshelf. Eventually she picked it up and read it through a feminist lens.
“Reading it that way plunged into my soul. And it wasn’t a joke anymore. It was something completely relevant,” said Dunn.
After “Frankenstein: A Cabaret” debuted, people kept coming up to Dunn at the grocery store or on the street, expressing how the show empowered them — or made them feel uncomfortable. The response was so strong that she decided to give it a second go-around this fall, with the effect being the same.
“One of my coworkers came up to me a few weeks later and he told me, ‘I need to tell you that when your show ended, I was pretty sure I didn’t like it. Then I realized it made me uncomfortable and forced me to face some stuff I didn’t want to look deeply into,’” said Melia Hadidian Tichenor, the actress who plays a sexually repressed Dr. Frankenstein. “That was more powerful than somebody telling me they loved it. I think it’s an opportunity.”
“Frankenstein: A Cabaret” doesn’t hold back. Interspersed with the dramatic scenes and songs are voices of the actresses detailing their real-life experiences with rape, sex, and more that help anchor the metaphorical material. The common thread between the women is the ways they’ve been made to feel like a monster, whether from themselves or others.
“The monster seems like a metaphor for so many things happening right now,” said Dunn.
In the span of nearly an hour and a half, the cabaret packs in a slew of modern references from Brock Turners’ dad’s infamous “20 minutes of action” quote to a YouTube comment about how the new “Ghostbusters” movie ruined one guy’s childhood to the San Bernardino shooter’s motivation for killing women because he thought they owed him something.
The effect is sobering: “Frankenstein” may be a Victorian tale, but the story is just as relevant today.
While not overtly political, it’s also hard not to see how these themes have been playing out in the U.S. presidential election.
The cabaret is likewise a nod to pioneering women. When Dunn’s not playing banjo, she hops on stage as the pregnant character of Mary Shelley, who wrote “Frankenstein” at 19 years old in the midst of having and losing children. The novel was first published anonymously (many thought her husband and poet Percy Shelley wrote it) and received favorably. When Shelley put her name on the second edition, it was called “grotesque” and an “abomination.”
“The show is a love letter to her, too, and her ability to create in impossible circumstances. This book is so brave,” said Dunn, who became a mother herself this year. “She’s my creativity goddess.”
While “Frankenstein: A Cabaret” is bold in its reclaiming of female space, it doesn’t shy away from implicating women. A Greek-like chorus appears regularly, spewing judgments about everything from how mothers are selfish if they want to pursue their creativity to how “a girl up at night is up to no good.”
“It’s not just men who are upholding these stereotypes,” said choreographer Rebekah Stiles. “It’s also women who reinforce it to themselves and other women. It’s a good reminder.”
By the end, when Dr. Frankenstein is stripped down to her bra and undies and dancing with the monster, the audience is left pondering how we might change, or create new narratives, of female desire. Dunn hopes to keep the conversation going by staging the show in Chicago and in the Bay Area next year. The process of bringing it to life was regenerative in and of itself.
“To see women collaborating and creating together, embodying female sexuality that is positive and brave, was so powerful,” she said. “I have an image now.”
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