The Diary of Anne Frankenstein
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
October 3, 2009
With the economy in the toilet, and Bloomberg the candidate running around screaming about new crime cameras and how safe we New Yorkers really are, you might find yourself with a serious hankering for "busting loose." You aren't alone. Enter the storied tradition of camp. Mostly outrageous, and often times disgusting, the camp genre is always there for those who need to feel a little bit less secure, and a lot more free. Attempting to add its name to this wonderfully deviant history is Ilya Sapiroe's The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, on stage now at 13th Street Repertory.
In a cavernous bunker long forgotten by the German army, the story follows Dr. Gustav Frankenstein, who, as a still loyal Nazi, is diligently at work on his quest to give the now disembodied Hitler a fresh start at world domination. To do this, he'll need a torso and legs worthy of his Fuhrer, something not readily available underground. His chance arrives, however, when a vacationing Hollywood starlet and her blond boy-toy stumble into the lab. With the help of his hilariously abused nephew Fritz, the good doctor finally sees his chance at bringing Hitler back to life, and will stop at nein to get it. But ah, if only it were that easy. For atop the lab, tucked away in an equally secret attic, is Anne Frankenstein, a now-blossoming young ingenue, who also happens to be the result of a "perfect female" experiment gone horribly awry. Egged on by her deliciously duplicitous Diary, and packing serious "heat" (wink, wink), Anne decides to spread her brawny wings, inciting what I imagine is supposed to be madcap hilarity.
Unfortunately, hilarity is not what ensues. Instead, what seems like a funny idea transforms into something far too expected and cumbersome to hold the audience's attention. That is not to say there isn't a good story here. Sapiroe has crafted a worthwhile, if slightly familiar, tale, but by the time you've emerged from the last of what seem like a hundred blackouts, the story no longer matters. While I'm no expert in camp, one of the basic foundations for almost all comedy is speed. The jokes have to come fast, and the action even faster. Sapiroe has the language down, as well as the actors to deliver it. Where this production falls short is the way it is constantly broken up by blackouts in order to fit all the scenes and shifts in set. While this works well on film, it most certainly does not here. It's also disappointing to see how safe Sapiroe plays it. From an aging DeNiro to Mel Brooks, the original tale by Mary Shelley has been through every reconstruction and deconstruction imaginable, leaving anything less than the fantastically bizarre disappointing. Unfortunately, this pitfall is occupied by Anne Frankenstein, a work that rarely surprises in spite of being a sci-fi spoof about Nazis and Jews starring a drag queen.
The shortcomings in the script and staging are disappointing, especially considering the comically astute cast assembled here. Drag queen Mimi Imfurst plays the title character, and for the most part, creates an enjoyable portrait of this "hermaphroditic" heroine. While, at times, Imfurst seems uncomfortable in the blocking, and goes too big (even for camp), her comic sense is always present. This is especially visible in the way she drops her voice on certain lines, as an almost hilarious wink in our direction. She is supported by the other title character, Diary, played by Lavinia Co-op. Co-op is terrific here, and if he had more lines, he would have made off with the show like a bandit. With an equally strong performance is Joseph Beuerlein (Dr. Frankenstein), who expertly walks on the campy side of life without ever moving into something we won't buy. Geoffrey Borman (Fritz) and Ryan Feyk (Hitler) also do solid supporting work here, as does Eric Jaeger (Paul Perrit).
Chesley Allen's set is equally engaging, and nothing short of fun to watch as the play unfolds. Allen, working with limited space, has built a world that fits perfectly into the 13th St. Rep's cavernous theatre. Mel Kier's costumes are also brilliant, in a Brothers-Grimm-meets-Pee-Wee's-Playhouse sort of way. Together, the world they build is truly inventive, and very funny.
The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, with its expert designs, terrific cast, and thoroughly enjoyable songs, is a show that has at least most of the elements for a very good time at the theatre. However, in this production, with its saggy staging and shockless storyline, the time-honored tradition of American camp is, unfortunately, not honored. As they say, it's back to the lab.