REVIEW: “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” stitches together worlds of author and fable
By Jack Gardner
The circumstances surrounding the creation of the “Frankenstein” tale is just as interesting of a story as Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic. So must have thought David Catlin, writer and director of Lookingglass Theatre’s new original adaptation of the tome. Continuing through Aug. 4 inside the historic Chicago Water Tower Water Works, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” serves as a “what if?” scenario to explain Shelley’s inspiration for writing “Frankenstein.”
The play begins on a stormy, Swiss summer night in 1816, the very same night where Lord Byron played by Keith D. Gallagher challenged friends Percy Bysshe Shelley, portrayed by Walter Briggs, Claire Cairmont as Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, Dr. John Polidori as Debo Balogun and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, an electric turn by Cordelia Dewdey, to a ghost story competition. Among stories shared by the group, Shelley’s “Frankenstein” tale of course wins this competition. (Dr. Polidori is the runner-up as he created the story “The Vampyre,” which became the first published vampire story and responsible for our modern conception of what a vampire looks like, ironically, based on the appearance of Lord Byron).
As Shelley begins her story, a fabric curtain separating the theatre-in-the-round stage drops to dissolve the barrier between audience and theatre, both figuratively and literally. The actors are no longer confined to Daniel Ostling’s deceptively simple set, taking to the isles and platforms behind the back rows of seating. Trap doors are hidden under the stage floor and dream sequences or ghostly visions see actors swinging and suspended above the audience, courtesy of Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi‘s circus choreography.
The actors inhabit the space, adorned in Sully Ratke’s beautiful period costumes. Claps of thunder ring throughout the room and jump scare moments are perfectly punctuated by Rick Sims’s audio cues. Additionally, William C. Kirkham’s lighting design makes sure that all actors are visible as they run from all corners of the room, while also making sure to conceal areas of the space, staying true to the dark and ominous overtones the show exudes. Props in this production prove to be unique and creative, helping immerse the audience in the world of “Frankenstein,” thanks to Amanda Herrmann. Victor’s lab, in particular, stands out as jars of petrified frogs and pans of oozing human organs hang from the ceiling.
Similar to how the line between audience and theatre is blurred, so are the halves of this story.
The ensemble doubles as characters in both the Lake Geneva Villa Diodati and in Shelley’s gothic classic. Gallagher especially stands out as his dual roles of Lord Byron and the Monster, which are both equally distinct while commanding attention in their respective scenes. This version of Frankenstein’s Monster trades the traditional green, neck-bolted goliath for a much more subtle look. Instead, the Monster possesses the frame of an ordinary man, similar in stature to Victor, but with sunken and rough features, covered in coagulated blood and adorned in rags.
Catlin, in mirroring Shelley’s own life with story beats in “Frankenstein”, attempts to assess Shelley’s authorial intent and influences. Despite the famous lamentations of French literary theorist Roland Barthes, this serves as an excellent storytelling device. For example, this dynamic can suddenly transform an argument between Victor Frankentein and his more-than-sister Elizabeth Lavenza, into one between Mary and Percy Shelley. The couple, who share fantastic chemistry, flow in and out of their sets of characters elegantly.
Moments like these recontextualize the story of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” into a more thoughtful and philosophical adaptation that ends up being more faithful to the themes of the original, as opposed to recent iterations, which often serve as our current conception of the story, such as the 1974 film spoof “Young Frankenstein” or the “Avengers-esque” “Van Helsing” (2004).
Stories such as the aforementioned two films are enjoyable and even clever adaptations in their own right, but they do not set out to accomplish the same goals as Catlin in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”. I find that the differences in theatre can be compared to that of a Marvel movie and an indie film. Both have their merits and are good in their own sense. One is a satisfying spectacle and the other a thought-provoking slowburn.
Lookingglass’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” falls into the latter category.
It is an emotional experiment that explores the mechanisms of storytelling in a narrative that seeks to bridge the world of the author and the world of the story. The audience’s own desires for lust, fear of loneliness, infallible intellect and insatiable ego are shared with Shelley and the gang’s own tragic flaws which are reflected into the monster. All of these abstract themes and motifs are valid interpretations, however, the story can also be enjoyed on a purely literal level as well.
This production captures the essence of what makes theatre such a unique medium for storytelling and why that medium is so great. It utilizes narrative mechanisms only possible on a stage in front of an audience and makes those theatrical elements integral to the consumption of this story.
The only thing that could have made this production better is if I could have seen “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” during the Halloween season.
FYI: Tickets are $45-$86 at lookingglasstheatre.org or at (312) 337-0665