From Manual Cinema’s artful adaptation to an exploration of duality between creature and creator at Remy Bumppo, Chicago has seen its fair share of the “Frankenstein” this year. But none have lingered between history and fiction quite the way David Catlin’s latest play does. In this world-premiere adaptation, Mary Shelley is not only the author, but also a player.
Gathered in Lord Byron’s home, Mary, Percy Shelley, Dr. John Polidori and Claire Clairmont exchange spine-tingling tales to outdo one another. When it’s Mary’s turn, each partygoer takes up a role, or several, in the newly born “Frankenstein.” Acting as both stage manager and Victor Frankenstein’s more-than-sister, Elizabeth, Mary (Cordelia Dewdney) gazes upon her imagination’s work.
As Percy (Walter Briggs) candidly points out, his role as Victor is not one of a hero. Victor may be the story’s namesake, but a hero he cannot always be. Just as the creature is a metaphor for whatever the reader needs him to be, Victor is a metaphor on his own for Percy and his relationship with Mary. For Mary, the creature represents the monstrosity that is loneliness and pain, two feelings she knows intimately.
“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” doesn’t elicit the kind of horror that modern cinema can. Instead it brings out the ugliness that people can bestow on one another. Its scares are wrought by the men that act like monsters, not the monsters who act like men. As Mary becomes part of the title of her own story, the women of the show truly triumph.
As Mary, Dewdney holds her own despite the circumstances set against her by Victorian society. There is no ignoring this steadfast Mary Shelley so long as Dewdney gives her breath. By the same token, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Claire Clairmont, as well as several other characters, sent chills throughout the house with her haunting melodies one moment before bringing on laughs the next. The symmetry of Claire’s constant pregnancy to Mary’s longing for her lost child creates its own kind of drama as Claire transforms from one character to the next for Mary’s story.
In Lookingglass style, and in collaboration with the Actors Gymnasium, the physical acting introduces the fantastical elements. From Victor’s dead mother and the moon itself, to an enchanting look into the possibilities of the creature and his beloved, the aerial work allows this adaptation to soar.
By stitching together Mary Shelley’s own life with that of the creature she introduced to the world so long ago, Catlin gives the young woman’s literature a modern body. By giving credence to the real-life horrors of Mary’s life and nodding at the circumstances she faced, Catlin elevates both creator and her creation. While it will forever impress that such a young woman could craft a story so essential to the future of science fiction, her own life deserves the same respect as those she imagined. (Amanda Finn)
Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 North Michigan, (312)337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $45-$86. Through August 4.