It’s a slow open. Actors can be seen moving about behind a very tall fabric screen, which will lift to expose Mary Shelley with her superb English poets— Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, along with Byron’s mistress Claire Clairmont. Byron’s doctor also shows up. For their own amusement these very naughty bohemians of the nineteenth century Romantic Period take on roles in their friend Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein play. (The idea of the play may have been influenced by her having heard of the Golem at a lecture). Writer and director David Catlin’s take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is airy, cerebral, and action-packed. This is a double play with “real” characters and characters in “the story.” It is long and meandering, and it can become confusing.
Unlike Quintessence Theatre Company’s recent and quite turgid revival of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is played as a Romantic Era poem, the Chicago Lookingglass production at McCarter is Victorian Gothic running with a stripped-down modern vibe. Powerful visual and sound design feature Promethean lightning and crashes of thunder. There are acrobatics and quite a lot of chasing around, often right through the audience. There’s little music except for the occasional fitful strumming of a guitar.
Frankenstein’s monster comes off more vagrant than monster. After seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Peter Boyle’s towering monster (Young Frankenstein, 1974), this play’s monster is diminutive, particularly when set against taller actors and huge visuals and sounds. Is that part of the plan? That made of human (and other) scraps, he’s nothing to look at, but he’s dangerous, with enough mental problems to qualify as presidential material? Dr. Frankenstein yearned to find the source of vitality of life and he succeeded, bestowing animation on lifeless matter. His monster, an outcast, suffers from alienation. Way more articulate and agile than his filmic predecessors, he accuses his maker, who belatedly seems to have found a soul for him, of wanting to be Prometheus.
There’s ethereal magic to be found in this stripped and reconstituted Victorian Gothic piece. Putting on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the company has taken on grave responsibilities. Despite some initially confusing aspects due to cast doubling, at the end the audience rushed to its feet for a hearty Standing O.
[McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ] October 15–November 3, 2019; mccarter.org
Side question: Does anyone know if Tennessee Williams might have gotten the name for Belle Reve from Mary Shelley’s house for Frankenstein—Belrive?