CAMBRIDGE — At one point in “Frankenstein,’’ a leading character not-so-casually tosses off a piece of personal information: “I’ve been reading Plutarch. ‘The Lives of the Emperors.’ ’’
Who is this urbane, learned, and history-minded fellow, you ask? Why, it’s none other than Frankenstein’s monster, a figure not usually associated in the popular mind with literary endeavor or even, you know, words. Called the Creature in Nick Dear’s stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, which is now at Central Square Theater in a production directed by David R. Gammons, he gives voice to his feelings, of which he has many.
Clearly, we’re a long way from the grunting, green-skinned, neck-bolted behemoth portrayed on film by a roster that has included Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Boyle. Watching this muddled, overly stylized “Frankenstein,’’ I missed every one of them.
Let’s grant that there’s a certain value in recapturing elements of Shelley’s original work, which she conceived at the stunningly young age of 18, essentially inventing the genre of science fiction and establishing a template (consider HBO’s “Westworld,’’ among many examples) that is so marbled into the culture we hardly notice it today.
But more is lost than is gained by playwright Dear’s attempt at fidelity. The early-19th-century sensibility of “Frankenstein’’ — which premiered in 2011 at London’s National Theater, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller — makes it come across as an overwrought melodrama that veers perilously close to camp at times.
Even an actor as gifted as John Kuntz, who plays inventor Victor Frankenstein, can’t bring to life (sorry) lines like “I am not mad! I have powers beyond your comprehension. How dare you call me mad?’’ and “What do you know of the power of love? It is irrational, a pool of unreason!’’ The Creature’s dialogue (“Did I ask to be created? . . . Why can I not be who I am? Why does humanity detest me?’’) isn’t much better. There are times when the production feels like an undergraduate philosophy session conducted at full shout on Cristina Todesco’s set, a steel-and-glass tower.
Matters are not helped — they are actually hindered — by director Gammons’s decision to essentially have it both ways by countering the archaic dialogue with a thoroughly modern, ensemble-driven approach to the characterization of the Creature. The Creature is embodied by multiple members of the six-person cast at the same time, their bodies entwined and their voices alternating or merging.
Gammons has proven time and again on Boston-area stages that he is a director of enormous visual sophistication and ingenuity, but his e pluribus unum conception of the Creature feels like a miscalculation right from the start. The play’s opening scene, when the Creature slowly comes to life — a writhing, groaning mass — stretches on and on, to almost interminable length. From then on, the ensemble-as-Creature approach diminishes the emotional impact when he suffers the rejection and scorn that prompts him to resort to violence.
Presumably Gammons’s intent with this ensemble performance was to suggest the Creature’s multiplicity of selves. That divided self — from loving to lethal — is a source of confusion and torment for the Creature, and a death warrant for the luckless persons who cross his path, including Elizabeth (Ashley Risteen), Victor Frankenstein’s kind-hearted young wife.
But having the Creature embodied by multiple actors — the others include the worthy likes of Omar Robinson, Debra Wise, Remo Airaldi, and David Keohane — has the paradoxical effect of weakening our focus on the very figure who should be the most compelling character in “Frankenstein.” Rather than underscoring the Creature’s otherness within the wider society or the ways that same society discriminates on the basis of factors like gender and race (which were among Gammons’s aims, to judge by his program note), the ensemble approach registers as an attention-splintering distraction.
It prevents us from getting a clear fix on the Creature’s suffering, so that we don’t fully see him — the very dilemma the Creature is trying to escape.
Play by Nick Dear. Adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Nov. 4. Tickets $25-$65, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin