By Vicki Weisfeld
McCarter Theatre in Princeton imported the exciting new play, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. It opened October 19 and runs through the Halloween season until November 3. Written and directed by David Catlin, the play contextualizes the familiar story of Victor Frankenstein and his ill-fated creature by grounding it in the strange and tragic life of the story’s author, Mary Shelley.
The five characters are Mary Shelley herself (played by Cordelia Dewdney), her half-sister, Claire Claremont (Amanda Raquel Martinez), her lover and, later, husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), and the couple’s friends, Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun) and Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher).
During a sojourn on Lake Geneva, the ominously stormy skies fire the characters’ imaginations. Byron suggests they each pen a ghost story to see which is scariest. Only 18 when she begins writing Frankenstein, Mary’s life is already marked by terrible events, including the deaths of her mother from childbed fever and her first baby. Mary’s real-life woes help shape her narrative and, as the five characters enact her gothic fantasy, they break through at poignant moments.
Steeped in the writings of the mother she never knew—the 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft—Mary’s tale demonstrates the folly of trying to play god. Victor Frankenstein wants to be “the Modern Prometheus,” to bring the spark of life to the creature he’s assembled. Much tragedy occurs before he recognizes he hasn’t grappled with his venture’s possible unintended consequences. (Is this a cautionary tale for today, in the fields of artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation?)
Nor does Victor (nicely ironic choice of name) take responsibility for the monster. He viciously rejects him, yet the monster’s relentless pursuit of his creator contains an element of devotion. “I would have loved to be your son,” he laments. Thus, we are confronted with a truth Mary expresses: “Within every man there is a monster; within every monster, a man.”
The play’s emotional experience is intensified by the reconfiguration of the theater space. McCarter undertook the massive task of removing several rows of seats and moving the stage forward, to create an “in-the round” effect. (Watch this amazing transformation here.) In addition, the actors bring the action to the audience with entrances, exits, and lines delivered from throughout the house.
Most of the company comes direct from the Lookingglass production. All strong players, they manage the dramatic aerial features and give the characters richness and three-dimensionality. Though all are excellent, Keith Gallagher delivers an unforgettable portrayal of the monster.
Production credits to Daniel Ostling (scenic design), Sully Ratke (costumes), William C. Kirkham (lighting design), Rick Sims (sound design/composer), Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi (circus and movement design).
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.