Frankenstein’s Monster is a Chessmaster in ‘The Mechanical.’


“The Mechanical” by Bond Street Theatre, written and directed by Michael McGuigan, interweaves the characters of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with the true story of The Turk, a chess-playing mechanical illusion that toured the world from 1770 to 1854. Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, Manhattan, will present the work April 23 to May 10, 2009. Bond Street Theatre is well known for its physical performances and cross-cultural work in Afghanistan and India.

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The Automaton Chess Player is presented: (L to R) Brian Foley as Wolfgang von Kempelen, Joshua Wynter as the Turk, Joanna Sherman as Minister Wolfenbuttel. Photo by Bond Street Theatre.

In “The Mechanical,” playwright Michael McGuigan imagines that the chess master inside was actually Frankenstein’s monster. Weaving truth and fiction, the play stages the creation of the Monster interwoven with encounters between Dr. Frankenstein and both Kempelen and Malzel. As the play blends the two tales, it yields themes on the process and responsibility of creation. At stake is the very essence of creation as Frankenstein’s fits of madness are contrasted with von Kempelen’s inspired fun.

McGuigan’s tale of intelligent machines, animated corpses and playful spirits brings morsels of history and culture together in ironic ways. The historical von Kempelen meets the fictional Monster after his escape from Frankenstein’s lab and the Creature undergoes a miraculous transformation at the hands of two theatrical zannies. The “new” Creation finds redeeming work in his new job as Kempelen’s assistant and as secret operator of the automaton. The ghost of Mary Shelley desperately wants her novel restored, but finds her Creation on his death bed in Havana. Kempelen’s assistant succumbed to yellow fever, the true story goes. Will Shelley’s creation also meet this fate?

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The Death of Maelzel: (L to R) Joanna Sherman as a Sailor, Kerry Watterson as Maelzel, Anna Zastrow as a Sailor. Photo by by Bond Street Theatre.

This is reflected in the characters of the play. McGuigan regards Kempelen as representative of the last era of craftsmen, who made intricate machines totally on their own (this was before the era of the assembly line), and poses him as a metaphor for actors and artisans of today who build their puppets, sets and illusions totally with their own hands.

The piece relies heavily on multi-media and the physical agility of actors of the Bond Street Theatre ensemble, and combines the aesthetics of gothic horror with the Italian commedia dell’arte and noir mystery. The story is enacted with generous use of box illusions and spectacle. With masks, puppets and object manipulations, the ensemble imbues everyday items with new meaning and significance: a book is also a child and a casket; a boatswain’s whistle changes scenery and characters in a flash. Projections illuminate the time period and provide ambiance. The overall style is Theatre of Objects and the piece uses abstract manipulation that seems macabre. There’s generous use of slapstick in the play’s physicality. McGuigan’s approach, he admits, is heavily influenced by Bugs Bunny cartoons and Firesign Theater.

Bond Street Theatre’s work is usually devised by the troupe from a scenario (the process is ideal for physical theatre and derives from commedia dell’ arte). “The Mechanical,” being a scripted play, represents a new approach for the company. In addition to bearing the company’s strong physical signature, the play offers the Bond Street ensemble an opportunity to re-investigate text, an experience they welcome having spent the last decade touring non-verbal productions in such regions as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Kosovo and Serbia. The musical score incorporates works by Beethoven (a contemporary of the robot) into a varied soundscape. The play was workshopped last Spring at NACL Theater in the Catskills where, McGuigan asserts, the ensemble transformed much of the play’s intellectual concepts into physical actions and object transformations.

Frankenstein’s Creation in the laboratory: Joshua Wynter as the Monster. Photo by Bond Street Theatre.

“The Mechanical” is directed by Michael McGuigan and devised by the Bond Street Theatre ensemble of Brian Foley, Meghan Frank, Richard Newman, Joanna Sherman, Joshua Wynter and Anna Zastrow. Lighting design is by Benjamin Tevelow; costume design is by Carla Bellisio and set design is by Michael McGuigan.

Mr. McGuigan has been an ensemble member of Bond Street Theatre for more than 25 years and Associate Director for many of Bond Street Theatre’s cultural exchange projects, including projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brazil, China, Singapore, Japan, and throughout Europe and the Balkans. He directs Bond Street Theatre’s Young Audience Program (YAP) for which he adapts classic folk tales for the stage and introduces physical theatre techniques to students through his program Actor-batics. He is also the set designer and audio-visual designer for many of Bond Street’s touring productions. He has participated in all company tours since 1979. Mr. McGuigan performed in George C. Wolfe’s production of “The Tempest” at the Delacorte Theater and on Broadway. He was stilt consultant for Broadway’s “The King and I,” choreographed by Lar Lubovich, and “Sideshow.” He plays drums and percussion in the Shinbone Alley Stilt Band.

The production is funded with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation, the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund, the Barbara Barondess Foundation and the Puffin Foundation.

Performances are April 23 to May 10, 2009 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, Manhattan. The performance schedule is Thursdays through Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $15. The box office number is (212) 254-1109; online ticketing is available at