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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Yes, there have also been a slew of stage versions. But what Catlin has aptly created for Chicago's Lookinglass Theatre during this well-timed celebration of the novel's 200th year since its publication is now likely going to thrill Princeton audiences for the next couple of weeks.
Catlin has written as well as directed a stunning dramatic narrative that combines a period in the life of the novelist herself, and the circumstances that served to ignite her imagination for her novel. Don't fool yourself that this is the same old story of a mad scientist's experiment gone wrong. The chills and the horrors that come with this breathtaking presentation are equally divided between the novel's plot and its origins within the novelist's very personal plight.
The theater at McCarter is reconfigured with the audience surrounding the performance space — a large raised platform that covers a section of the front orchestra with six tiered rows now providing for stage seating. The playing area is cleverly constructed for quick changes of locales, mostly with props and moveable set pieces. Some will recall the center ring of the Barnum and Bailey Circus as traditional circus rigging is used by the expertly rehearsed performers to great effect. The many circus-like stunts and movements created for the athletically talented company by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi are calculated to leave you breathless and they are also beautifully executed.
Bravos to set designer Daniel Ostling, lighting designer William C. Kirkham and sound and composition designer Rick Sims for not only supplying atmospherics but for creating a nightmarishly Gothic world that thoroughly envelops the play. The period costumes designed by Sully Radke are outstanding as is the creature's truly horrifying body makeup.
This is basically a play within a play of how Frankenstein came to be and how the 18 year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Cordelia Dewdney) created the Frankenstein on demand one dark night of story-telling. This, while she is on summer holiday in Geneva, Switzerland with her lover, the lauded yet emotionally conflicted poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs) and her close friends — the gay and witty Lord Byron, Mary's very pregnant (by Percy) step sister Claire Clairmont (Amanda Raquel Martinez) and the writer and physician Dr. Polidori (Debo Balogun), the latter being the author of The Vampyre , the first published story of a vampire.
Too bad we don't get snippets from the others stories, but it is Mary's turn to scare the bejesus out of them (and us.) She does this as experienced through her own suppressed hurts and feelings of betrayal. The play develops incrementally between episodes in Mary's own life and with those in the novel.
For those who recall the dreamy Lookingglass Alice that McCarter presented in 2007, this production outdoes that one in pacing, excitement and sheer spectacle. A surreal-ized reality and fantasy are more than imaginatively integrated in the action as Catlin draws parallels between what is portrayed as fiction and what is revealed as facts through Mary Shelley, the play's narrator and primary character. Just as Dewdney portrays Mary and the novel's Elizabeth, the four other performers portray, with some amazingly fast transitions, the novel's many characters.
One of the many standout scenes include Frankenstein's (Briggs) balletic dream in which he fulfills the creature's (Gallagher) desire to have a companion (Dewdney) and live in an idyllic Eden: only to see it turn gruesome and bloody. Gallagher gives a fantastic performance transitioning from the fey Byron into a fearsome creation, while never losing the creature's poignant need to be loved by his creator. Throughouty we are reprised of Mary's loss of her own children and her tumultuous relationship with her father and then her unstable/unfaithful lover.
Catlin's direction of this own script cannot be faulted, but it is the script's psychological inquiries that makes this telling of Frankenstein so compelling. A key conversation that speaks to this is a conversation between Elizabeth and Victor that becomes the conversation between Mary and Percy, as hauntingly portrayed throughout by Dewdney and Briggs. McCarter is smartly inviting audiences who don't know Mary Shelley's back story, her rejection by family and by ignoring social norms, to pre and post show talks.
Catlin's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is grandiose story-telling but even grander theater. One can only hope that New York theater goers will be able to marvel at this production. The Circle in the Square would be the perfect space.
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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Written and Directed by David Catlin
Cast: Debo Balogun (Dr. John Polidori), Walter Briggs (Percy Bysshe Shelley), Cordelia Dewdney (Mary Shelley), Keith D. Gallagher (Lord Byron), Amanda Raquel Martinez (Claire Clairmont).
Scenic Design: Daniel Ostling
Costume Design: Sully Radke
Lighting Design: William C. Kirkham
Sound Design & Composition: Rick Sims
Circus and Movement Design: Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi
Rigging Design: Rigability Inc.
Fight Choreography: Britain Willcock
Production Stage Manager: Mary Hungerford
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ.
Tickets: $20 - $76
Performances: Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm.
From 10/15/19 Opened 10/19/19 Ends 11/03/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/18/19
NJ Theatre Alliance
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