October 23, 2019

Electrifying “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” Comes to McCarter; Adaptation Juxtaposes the Spooky Classic with the Author’s Life

“MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN”: Performances are underway for “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Directed by playwright David Catlin, Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production runs through November 3 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Mary Shelley (Cordelia Dewdney, left) gazes reflectively at Frankenstein’s Creature (Keith D. Gallagher). (Photo by Liz Lauren)

By Donald H. Sanborn III.

McCarter Theatre is presenting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in time for Halloween. Lookingglass Theatre Company brings its brooding spectacle to Princeton following its premiere in Chicago earlier this year. David Catlin, whose Lookingglass Alice was presented by McCarter in 2007, is the playwright and director.

The title of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hints at one of the elements that make this version unique: the author becomes a character. Brief glimpses into Shelley’s stormy life are juxtaposed against scenes from her famous novel.

As with McCarter’s production of Gloria: A Life, seats have been placed on the stage, so that the show is presented in the round. Daniel Ostling’s set is covered by an off-white sheet, which is suspended by a brick cubicle. During the opening scene we see the actors through this sheet, which somewhat separates them from us despite the intimacy inherent in the seating arrangement.

This motif of encasement in cubicles is echoed by the presence of glass containers in Frankenstein’s laboratory, which hold bones and an assortment of other eerie items. Eventually a character is placed in a glass case. Even the audience is somewhat encased; for the second act, the sides of the auditorium are draped in plastic. It is an apt realization of the story’s theme of isolation.

Mary Shelley is not the only historical figure to become a character in this version. She is joined by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet with whom she runs away to Switzerland, although he is already married; Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister; Lord Byron, the renowned Romantic poet, who has an affair with Claire; and Dr. John Polidori, who is Lord Byron’s personal physician.

In the summer of 1816 Lord Byron has rented the Villa Diodati in Lake Geneva, where he is hosting this circle of friends. He has instigated a contest of ghost stories, which he and his guests share in an intimate, candlelit room. As the play begins Percy is concluding his tale — then it is Mary’s turn. As she develops her story, the other guests become the characters. This framing device echoes the musical Man of La Mancha, in which another author, Cervantes, turns his fellow prisoners into the characters in Don Quixote.

The concept of characters seated around the stage telling stories also recalls Gloria: A Life, which provides a nice link between the first two plays of McCarter’s season, though obviously here the stories are fictional rather than anecdotal. Both plays also feature a female protagonist who has been affected by the loss of a mother who was a writer, and defied societal conventions of her time.

Shelley’s mother — Mary Wollstonecraft, for whom she was named — was an author whose works include Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. During childbirth she developed an infection, and died just days after the younger Mary was born.

When Shelley was 4, her father, journalist William Godwin, remarried. Godwin’s second wife, Jane Clairmont, had two children of her own. Mary “felt removed from her family and from her father’s affection,” Chicago-based writer Caroline Macon Fleischer observes in a program note. A clear parallel is drawn when Victor Frankenstein abandons his first Creature in favor of a female creation, the Companion, who descends from the stage in a circus ring.

Catlin’s insightful script and direction make clear that Shelley sees herself in the Creature, who is rejected and replaced by Frankenstein. There is a crucial scene in which Mary and the creature gaze at each other through a wooden frame, holding an identical pose — each a reflection of the other.

There are some astute character doublings. At one point Claire says to the lascivious Byron, “Such a monster you are.” In the Frankenstein story, Byron becomes the Creature. Mary doubles as Victor Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth. Percy Shelley, who was fascinated by science, portrays Victor; this lets Mary and Percy be a romantic couple in both worlds. In the second act the character names become increasingly interchangeable between the historical world and that of Mary’s tale.

Cordelia Dewdney brings a sturdy, haunted intensity to the role of Mary. Dewdney is careful not to let the portrayal become joyless, but highlights the extent to which Mary’s disposition is colored by her grief. Dewdney confidently commands the stage as Mary improvises the story that will become her classic 1818 novel.

Keith D. Gallagher is outstanding as the rage-filled Creature, whose inner torment is made viscerally apparent through every line delivery and movement. Gallagher is equally at home portraying the lascivious Lord Byron.

Walter Briggs similarly is impassioned in his dual role of Percy and Victor, infusing both characters with a restless but debonair sincerity. Debo Balogun is entertaining as the bawdy Dr. Polidori, as well as two kind characters in the Frankenstein story: Henry Clerval, a childhood friend of Victor and Elizabeth; and Captain Walton.

In addition to an amusing performance as the flippant Claire, Amanda Raquel Martinez brings her considerable talent as a singer. In a clever use of music, she chants lines delivered by the ghost of Frankenstein’s Mother, who reprimands him for allowing his obsession with his work to seclude him from the rest of the world.

Elsewhere Martinez lends her soaring vocals to some ethereal, otherworldly incidental music by Rick Sims. Sims also provides the eerie sound design, which — along with lighting designer William C. Kirkham’s strobe effects — punctuates the moments of highest dramatic tension. Kirkham’s lighting is particularly exquisite for the candlelit prologue. That first scene also showcases Sully Ratke’s elegant costumes, particularly Mary’s delicate white dress.

As a director, Catlin makes the most of the space, providing staging that is unpredictable and flows well. It becomes clear that the opening scene is confined so that the action has room to move outward; eventually audience members may find a cast member next to them at any time. When the actors are on stage, Catlin is careful to keep them moving, so that they never have their backs to any one segment of the audience for too long.

This play presents a number of intriguing concepts, which one wishes could be given more time. The glimpses at Shelley’s life are fascinating, and leave this writer wanting more of them, but so do the scenes from the novel. Some audience members may find some scenes a bit difficult to follow, though the swift pacing generally benefits the overtly theatrical style of the show.

But what emerges is an engaging set of juxtapositions between an author’s life and her creations, as well as a sharp focus on the dual themes of loss and inspiration, which permeate the two worlds. The production delivers all of this by taking full advantage of the magic that live theatre can provide. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also offers a distinct point of view, letting Victor Frankenstein and his Creature share space with the fascinating woman who created both of them.

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through November 3. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.