“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”: not your father’s horror story

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Scene from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”
Scene from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” at McCarter Theatre in Princeton

McCarter Theatre presents Frankenstein

Everybody knows the story of Frankenstein, right? The monster created out of bits and pieces of cadavers and endowed with life by an obsessed doctor. The mindless, brainless killer of the innocent. If that’s the image you have, you’re in for a spooky delight.

Scene from "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"
Scene from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”

This Hallowe’en season, the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton presents the Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago’s production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapted by playwright/director David Catlin from the original novel by Mary Shelley. It is a tale of the macabre designed to rivet you to your seat, one that will haunt your memory long after the play is over. It is thrilling and inventive, incorporating circus-inspired movements and startling special effects. It sends a shiver down the spine, and it is as terrifying a pleasure as a roller coaster ride.

Scene from "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"
Scene from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”

On a dark and stormy night in Switzerland, a party of five, including the literary giants Lord Byron and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, are entertaining themselves by making up ghost stories. Eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, Percy’s lover, relates her story. As she does, the play moves smoothly back and forth between Mary and her audience and the story she’s relating.

The members of the party become the characters in the tale: young Victor Frankenstein, his mother, his adopted sister Elizabeth, his best friend Henry, and many others. Victor is fascinated by the idea of using electricity to bring the dead back to life. The death of his mother spurs on his researches in reanimation. When Victor succeeds in bringing a Creature to life, his horror overcomes his hubris and he rejects his creation. From this point, Mary’s story begins to reflect her own personal struggles, making the story she tells more than, and so much better than, just another scary tale told on a rainy night.

Director Catlin, who had worked with most of this cast in the play’s Chicago incarnation, gets strong characterizations from his talented actors. Walter Briggs gives a powerful portrayal of both Shelley and Victor. He is well and strongly matched by the performance of Cordelia Dewdney as Mary and Elizabeth. Keith D. Gallagher skillfully rises to the challenges of portraying both the pansexual, dissolute Lord Byron and the tormented Creature. Debo Balogun gives strong support as Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, Victor’s best friend Henry, and the ship captain to whom Victor recounts his story. Finally, Amanda Raquel Martinez performs a number of roles, including Mary’s pregnant stepsister Claire Clairmont, Mrs. Frankenstein, Victor’s foster brother William, and Death personified. She also provides several hauntingly beautiful vocalizations during the course of the play.

Scene from Mary Shelleys "Frankenstein"
Scene from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” at McCarter Theatre in Princeton

McCarter’s design team—scenic designer Daniel Ostling, lighting designer William C. Kirkham, and sound designer/composer Rick Sims—transforms the proscenium stage into a theatre in the round, an open playing space surrounded by a framework within which the actors are surrounded on all sides by the audience. The framework allows for actors to fly into and out of scenes using techniques created by circus and movement designer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. Special mention also goes to fight choreographer Britain Willcock and rigging design firm Rigability Inc. Sully Ratke’s costumes range from mundane practicality to imaginative fancy, at times flowing with a life of their own.

At this time of year, it is good to gather together for the sharing of tales of horror and the unknown. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is perfect for this season, a story of man’s hubristic desire to reverse death, and how even the best of intentions can yield horrific results. McCarter Theatre Company is to be congratulated for bringing the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production to Princeton, and it is well worth making the trip to spend an unsettling evening listening to the tale of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Matthews Theatre on the campus of Princeton University through November 3, 2019. For tickets and information, visit mccarter.org.