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Frankenstein (Mortal Toys): Small Wonder

Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson’s Frankenstein (Mortal Toys) unites flat puppet characters pushed and pulled by spindly sticks and black thread, a small proscenium set, dramatic lighting design, beautifully painted backdrops, two short films, live music and six performers to tell the melancholy tale of a man who in trying to create life instead crafted a tragic, murderous monster. Their engaging adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Victorian story opens with the exhausted doctor stumbling across the icy floes of the Arctic. We then revert to childhood, when Frankenstein was briefly happy before a series of deaths brought sorrow, and the desire to cheat death. Geiser and Simpson, who teach at CalArts, presented the first incarnation of Frankenstein in 2004, the same year that they founded Automata, a nonprofit organization designed to support neglected art forms, including experimental film and puppet theater. For its current incarnation, Frankenstein will be set within the recently refurbished Velaslavasay Panorama, which features a painted Arctic scene, helping to heighten the immersive quality of this entirely absorbing show. The films that appear midway into the story illustrate two segments of the monster’s life, including a nearly abstract cutout animation of his desperate flight across Europe following a murderous rampage. Despite its diminutive scale, Frankenstein rivals Hollywood films in its ability to sweep viewers into another world, a world so carefully crafted that you can’t help but lean forward, entranced, as the story draws you toward its haunting conclusion. In explaining their work, Geiser admits, “There’s really no label for what we do,” noting that “puppets” and “toy theater” connote forms for children. “So we have to make up our own terms,” Simpson says. “We call this a ‘miniature spectacle.’ ” The term is just right, capturing at once the intimate and sweeping charm of their amazing project. (Velaslavasay Panorama, 1122 W. 24th St., L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., Dec. 13-14, 8 p.m.; Sat., Dec. 15, 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 16, 3 p.m. 800-838-3006.)

—Holly Willis