After Bringing His Unique Take to Homer and Shakespeare, the KC Actor, Writer and Director Turns His Hand to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”
And so Kyle Hatley returns.
The triple-threat theater artist — he writes, directs and acts — made a huge impact on the Kansas City theater scene after he arrived in 2008 to become Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s assistant artistic director under Eric Rosen. In Kansas City, Hatley produced his original scripts for KC Fringe. He directed innovative productions of the classic musical “Carousel” and Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” for the Living Room. And he chalked up memorable performances in Rep productions of “The Glass Menagerie,” “The Foreigner” and “Death of a Salesman.”
In 2014, Hatley relocated to Chicago, but he returned the following year to perform a singular Rep production of “An Iliad,” Lisa Peterson and David O’Hare’s adaption of Homer’s ancient poem about the Trojan War. Hatley played the Poet, a sort of itinerant performance artist, who retells Homer’s tale to listeners he encounters in his travels. He was joined on stage by musician Raymond Castrey, who performed on a variety of instruments in a sort of rhythmic back-and-forth with the actor.
Local audiences generally agreed that they had never seen anything like it — dramatically powerful, poetic, visual and moving. And “An Iliad” suggested an approach for his latest undertaking — an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which begins performances at Copaken Stage March 6.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Hatley’s last project in Kansas City was “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” a 90-minute condensation of Shakespeare’s original, in which he and Natalie Liccardello played all the speaking parts and guitarist Sean Hogge provided a live score. That was in 2017. The day after the show closed, Hatley hit the road to Los Angeles with his wife, actress Emily Peterson, and a car packed with worldly possessions.
“That whole drive, I started telling Emily I wanted to read some classics,” he said. “And for Christmas that year she bought me ‘Frankenstein.’ I was intrigued. Before New Year’s I had finished it. It leveled me. It’s terrifying and beautiful — one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.”
And so the process began. He read the book again and made notes. He read other novelists’ take on the story. He read about the melancholy, unconventional life of Mary Shelley. And he began sketching out an idea for “Frankenstein” as a one-man show.
“By July I had 45 pages,” he recalled.
Kansas City audiences will have a chance to see Hatley’s interpretation as an actor and writer of the horror classic beginning March 6 as part of the Rep’s OriginKC Festival, an annual showcase for world premieres.
Streaming television has fueled an expansion of the already ubiquitous horror genre, including movies and series based on classic and contemporary novels. Much of it deals in tropes and traditions that can be traced to the publication of “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” in 1818. The first edition was issued anonymously. The author, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, was 18 when she began writing the book, 19 when it was published. The epistolary novel did not mark the beginning of gothic horror, but it became the genre’s most famous title.
The story of Victor Frankenstein, an obsessed scientist who creates a human being from body parts, became an enduring metaphor for the modern world. The narrative of science unleashing forces beyond its control speaks to the here and now with every new breakthrough and every new generation. From nuclear waste to the fear of autonomous artificial intelligence, the modern analogies to “Frankenstein” remain distressingly relevant.
Clearly, something in Mary Shelley’s tale has an eternal hold on the imaginations of writers and filmmakers.
In 1823, the first stage adaptation of Shelley’s story appeared in London. The first film version was in 1910. Director James Whale adapted the story for a singular Hollywood film, “Frankenstein,” in 1931, which he followed four years later with “The Bride of Frankenstein.” In Whale’s movies, the appearance of actor Boris Karloff in elevator shoes, with metal bolts protruding from each side of his neck and visible stitching holding his hands to his forearms, became the enduring iconic image of the creature.
But those indelible images had little to do with Shelley’s novel, in which the creature speaks eloquently of his rage and confusion at being suddenly thrust into a world in which he would be feared and tormented as a monster.
The Musician and the Storyteller
Taking his cue from “An Iliad,” Hatley will perform as the Storyteller with a live score performed by Chicago actress/musician Dana Omar onstage.
When we spoke in December, Hatley was in the midst of a workshop with Omar and director Joanie Schultz. It was his first chance to get the material on its feet, so he and his collaborators could see what worked and figure out where it needed to go.
Schultz, who staged Vanessa Severo’s “Frida: A Self Portrait” for the Rep, is the perfect person to stage “Frankenstein,” according to Hatley.
“She’s one of those people who help you understand what it is you’re writing,” Hatley said. “She asked the questions that made me think harder and deeper about what the play is to become . . . The first draft, I was trying a lot of what I learned in ‘An Iliad,’ and then I learned how to separate it. This is its own little thing. There’s a little bit of a mystery about who the Storyteller is and who the Musician is.”
As best he can recall, Hatley’s first exposure to any version of Shelley’s story was Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” which later became a Broadway musical.
“I saw the 1931 version and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein,’ and I’ve seen a couple of really bad ones since then,” he said. “Everyone does an adaptation of ‘Frankenstein.’ There are so many of them out there. But I feel like ours is unique. I learned a lot about Mary’s life when she was writing this, and some of her experiences in life are reflected in this. We talk about Mary before we talk about anything. Her pain and joy can’t be left alone.”
When he pitched the idea to Omar of being his musical collaborator, and she agreed, he began building the play around her musical talents.
“Every time I finished a section, I would record it on my phone and (text) it to her,” he said. “I would sit there and write something and then I would say, ‘What does this sound like?’ So I would practice it out loud. Then Dana would do her work and send it back to me.”
At times he decided to cut lines because the music carried the feeling and information he wanted to get across.
In December he had not yet memorized the entire script.
“I kind of wrote it out loud,” he said. “My neighbors must think I’m crazy. There are some loud, insane sections. You know what I mean.”
The scenic designer is Jack Magaw, whose work has been seen at the Rep in recent years. He designed sets for “Of Mice and Men,” “Fences” and “When I Come to Die,” among others. Hatley said the general idea is for the piece to be performed in a flexible space suggestive of a saloon or performance hall.
“The concept is these two travel everywhere, the Musician and the Storyteller,” he said. “They travel from city to city, country to country, playing bars but also theaters and once in an opera house. So the idea is they’re basically going to a bar to perform this for the first time in a few years. When (the audience) walks in, you see the Storyteller setting everything up, setting up equipment and props. It’s basically an empty space with a few tricks up its sleeve.”
Omar said preparing a live score borne from improvisation and collaboration is a first for her. For most of her career, she’s been an actor who sometimes performed music onstage.
“I love Kyle’s work,” she said. “I immediately knew that I had to do it despite any doubts I had about myself because I knew we would be a good team. We see storytelling very similarly. So I was ecstatic.”
Her initial musical training was on the flute in childhood.
“Then I picked up a ukulele, and then the guitar and the musical saw. I love that instrument. I love what it does,” she said.
Hatley said the creative process inevitably involves a lot of trimming.
“I’m trying to make it as lean as I can,” he said. “Joanie fights for what you’ve written, but she also fights for the audience. She’s one of those directors I’ve had my eye on for a long time. She’s so imaginative and so smart, and she works so hard. I feel like I’m in really good hands.”
And after the Rep run? What then?
“Dana and I would really like to see a second production somewhere,” he said. “What any play wants is a second production. Hopefully, after we get through this one, we can play a market where they don’t know me or my work.”
“Frankenstein” will be performed in repertory with “Legacy Land,” written by Stacey Rose and directed by Logan Vaughn as part of KCRep’s annual OriginKC Festival, March 6 through April 5 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. For more information and tickets, 816-235-2700 or www.kcrep.org.