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From left: Scott Westerman, Michael Stejskal, Rashun Carter and Doreen Calderon in Theater Wit’s production of “Gods & Monsters,” which runs through June 2. Credit: Elizabeth Stenholt

LAKEVIEW — Every artist adapting an existing work probably hopes to win the blessing of its creator.

That dream-come-true scene just played out at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., where novelist Christopher Bram attended the recent opening-weekend performances of the world-premiere stage drama “Gods & Monsters,” based on his novel “Father of Frankenstein.” The play runs through June 2.

“One of the exciting things about this: All of these elements that weren’t either in my novel or in the movie, they’re now here — and it works so organically,” Bram said at a post-show discussion Saturday night.

Sitting next to him on stage was playwright Tom Mullen, whose face lit up as Bram bestowed the company with well-earned bragging rights.

The play’s title was also the name of the 1997 film adaptation of Bram’s novel. Today's audiences will discover new resonance in this bold interpretation from a new nonprofit company, Frame of Reference Productions: The drama, set in 1957, now grapples with issues of race as well as sexuality.

Credit: mullen68

The novel, published in 1995 under the apt title “Father of Frankenstein,” imagines the final months of James Whale, real-life director of a number of classic films from the 1930s, including “Show Boat,” “The Invisible Man” and most famously, “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.”

The story revolves around an ailing and forgotten film director, his caring but judgmental housekeeper and the handsome yet inscrutable gardener who enters their lives.

In Bram’s prototypical vision, Whale has just returned to his Hollywood mansion after a stay in the hospital. Facing a diminished future following a stroke, he’s suddenly haunted by memories he can’t push away — particularly his traumatic younger days spent in World War I trenches.

His one constant is Maria, a Mexican immigrant who fusses over her “Mister Jimmy.” Their lives are upended when Whale, who was openly gay (an unconventional choice for his era), becomes smitten by Clayton, his hunky new gardener.

The film version, which won an Oscar for writer-director Bill Condon’s screenplay 25 years ago, stayed largely true to the novel, except for its all-white cast: Ian McKellen as Whale, Brendan Fraser as Clayton — and Lynn Redgrave as Hanna, an Eastern European version of Maria.

(During Saturday's talk, Bram also revealed the interesting backstory of the title switch from the novel to film: “The movie is called ‘Gods & Monsters’ instead of ‘Father of Frankenstein’ because Brendan Fraser didn’t like the title. He thought it sounded like a cheap Hollywood pulp movie. Bill [Condon] explained, ‘That’s kind of the point,’” Bram said. But to secure Fraser's casting, Condon agreed to the change.)

A quarter of a century later, playwright Mullen has restored Maria to her original race — and added another layer by making Clayton Boone, the gardener, a Black man.

Those choices were what drew another Chicago theater artist, Paul Oakley Stovall, into the project. A seasoned actor, producer and playwright, Stovall said he had never stepped into the director’s role until now. Stovall said Mullen approached him to collaborate on this project, which the two Edgewater residents first discussed over martinis in Andersonville last year.

Paul Oakley Stovall (left) and Tom Mullen (right). Credit: Brandon Dahlquist

Mullen told Stovall he was writing the play with Clay Boone as a Black man. Stovall recalled then asking about Maria: “Can the maid stay Mexican? Because I love Lynn Redgrave dearly, but there’s a lot to be mined about Mexican-Black issues, especially in the ’50s. When Tom said, ‘Yes, Maria will be Mexican; that’s part of the story,’ I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Mullen said he found the inspiration to switch Clayton’s race from reading a biography of Whale. The director championed Black performers, including Paul Robeson, in his 1936 “Showboat,” a musical whose plot involves mixed-race relations, which were then especially taboo in the South.

“It was really daring at the time,” Mullen said.

The switch enriches the text, providing new avenues for conversation. For example, Clay — a laborer whose physique belies his intelligence — chats with Whale about his most famous film. In Clay’s interpretation, the “monster” who’s judged by villagers for his appearance is a metaphor for being Black in America.

The result is a compelling new take on the odd triangle in which the characters find themselves. A white gay man, a Black heterosexual man, a devout Latina: Each is, in some way, “on the outside, looking in,” Mullen said.

From left: Ethan Check, Scott Westerman and Rashun Carter in Theater Wit’s production of “Gods & Monsters,” which runs through June 2. Credit: Elizabeth Stenholt

The complex themes meant that the cast and artistic crew had to navigate some tricky waters.

“I’m all about safe space, but on the first day of rehearsal I said, ‘Please don’t let that stop us from being brave. We are in Chicago. We make plays with a shoelace, a folding chair and a light bulb. So I need you all to be brave — be brave enough to make a mistake,'” Stovall said.

“I tried to bring that old Chicago style,” he said. “Let’s do it, let’s fall on our face! It’s fun.”

“Gods & Monsters” runs through June 2 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. For tickets and more information, visit the theater website.


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