‘Frankenstein’: immersive theater puts audience in the action

“Frankenstein’s Funeral,” featuring Jake Krakovsky and Michelle Pokopac, is an “immersive” play in which a small audience becomes part of the action. A site-specific show, it was created for the gothic architecture of the St. John’s Lutheran Church in Druid Hills. CONTRIBUTED: FOUND STAGES/JOSH MARSH

“Frankenstein’s Funeral,” featuring Jake Krakovsky and Michelle Pokopac, is an “immersive” play in which a small audience becomes part of the action. A site-specific show, it was created for the gothic architecture of the St. John’s Lutheran Church in Druid Hills. CONTRIBUTED: FOUND STAGES/JOSH MARSH

You are a guest at a wedding. You and everyone else in the congregation have been given handfuls of white petals to toss at the bride and groom after the vows have been pronounced.

You know this marriage won’t turn out well because the groom is the haunted Dr. Frankenstein and the bride is the doomed Elizabeth Lavenza.

Soon Frankenstein’s monster will kill everything his creator loves—including his creator’s bride. But the ceremony is at hand and, despite your misgivings, you toss the flowers to celebrate the moment.

That’s when you realize to your horror that your snow-white petals have been transformed into something else.

This bit of stage magic is among the set pieces planned for “Frankenstein’s Funeral,” an immersive play that opens Friday, Oct. 4, at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

The one-hour drama is being produced by Found Stages, a young troupe that has presented theater in unorthodox settings (including on the side of a river) and in unusual ways (through a set of headphones while the listener strolls a city neighborhood).

Victor Frankenstein (played by Jake Krakovsky) looks in horror at his monstrous creation through the stained-glass window of the St. John’s Lutheran Church. This month Found Stages is presenting an immersive version of the Frankenstein story called “Frankenstein’s Funeral” at this gothic Midtown church. CONTRIBUTED: FOUND STAGES/JOSH MARSH

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"Frankenstein's Funeral" came about after co-writer and Found Stages co-founder Nichole Palmietto visited St. John's and thought to herself, "This place looks like Frankenstein lived here."

The 105-year-old building, once a private mansion, is rich with carved wood, dark paneling, leaded glass, gargoyles and giant-sized fireplaces. It even comes with a curse.

"There is a sordid past associated with this house," said Rev. Nancy Christensen. The structure was built in the gothic style in 1914 by Sam Venable, who owned the quarries at Stone Mountain with his brother William, and who helped re-establish the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

St. John’s bought the house from the Venables in 1959 and moved in two years later. In 1969, the church built a new mid-Century style sanctuary attached to the house.

“The congregation is proud of the fact that we’ve turned the legacy around,” said Christensen. “This is not a place of exclusion; it’s a place of welcome.”

The show began as a “movement driven” drama, but more spoken words entered the script during its long, two-year development. At a recent rehearsal Joseph Jong Pendergrast, who plays Frankenstein’s monster, practiced a choreographed fight with Jake Krakovsky, who portrays his creator, the brilliant but misguided Victor Frankenstein.

The tall, slim Pendergrast is a ballroom dance instructor, and extraordinarily flexible. During the practice, he experimented with some monstrous moves, including an insect-like crawl in a full backbend. “You remind me of ‘The Ring’,” laughed choreographer Angela Harris.

Found Stages is planning for ‘Ring’-style chills in this haunted house, with special light bulbs in the chandeliers that appear to be flickering flames, apparitions of ghosts, 4-D special effects and a gruesome, still-beating heart.

Like the super-popular immersive show “Sleep No More” in Manhattan, the 40-person audience is incorporated into the action of “Frankenstein’s Funeral,” moving from the operating theater where the monster is given life (yes, a lightning bolt is involved) to a parlor, to the sanctuary for the doctor’s funeral.

Victor Frankenstein (played by Jake Krakovsky) shares a moment with his bride, Elizabeth Lavenza (Michelle Pokopac) in the tragic reimagining of the Frankenstein story, presented this month by Found Stages. CONTRIBUTED: FOUND STAGES/JOSH MARSH

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“We’ve built the audience into the fight scene,” said Palmietto, adding that they must decide whether to hand a weapon to one of the combatants.

Jennifer Schottstaedt as Mary Shelley serves as a character and as an interlocutor in the show, helping to explain the action and to gently direct the audience when necessary. The show is a spin-off of "Frankenstein's Ball," which Found Stages produced at the Highland Inn as a New Year's Eve event last year. While "Frankenstein's Ball" tells the Mary Shelley story, "Frankenstein's Funeral focuses on Shelley's novel.

Letting the audience interact with the show brings certain risks, including the risk of an audience member getting too far into it. During one scene from “Frankenstein’s Ball,” in which Mary Shelley lines up a row of pills to swallow as she contemplates suicide, an audience member became so agitated that the onlooker grabbed the pills to keep them away from the character.

“You’re giving a lot of responsibility to the audience, and they don’t come to rehearsals and they don’t sign contracts,” said Palmietto. “But it gives you an opportunity for something exciting to happen.” The actors? “They all knew what they were signing up for when they accepted the role. They’re not going to get that fourth wall, they’re not going to get that separation.”

Said choreographer Harris, “It’s so great to get that energy from the audience” — and it’s up to the actors to figure out how to utilize that energy. “Otherwise you can just stay home and watch TV.”

"Frankenstein's Funeral," produced by Found Stages, Oct. 4-Nov. 3, at St. John's Lutheran Church, 1410 Ponce De Leon Ave. NE., Atlanta. Tickets start at $45. foundstages.org/tickets