Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Alive, She Cried: Lookingglass Breathes New Life Into 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
written and directed by David Catlin
from the book by Mary Shelley
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 4

I have to assume I was familiar with the name Frankenstein by the time I was 10, but other than a fondness for Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein--the 1974 movie, and far less so the 2007 musical--at the age of 50 I have very little recall for encounters with the monster, his maker or the material.

By this I mean I've never read Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein, nor seen in full any film versions of her groundbreaking horror--and science fiction--tale.

I'm familiar with various physical depictions of the Frankenstein monster--the name was really that of the scientist but has largely served both cases--but other than via Brooks, only vaguely the story.

And while there have been multiple recent Chicagoland theatrical productions tied into the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein being published--presented by Court, Lifeline, Remy Bumppo and perhaps other theaters--I did not attend any until Lookingglass' current Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

So I was quite grateful for much of what I was able to glean from the striking production, quite
imaginatively written and directed by Lookingglass ensemble member David Catlin--also responsible for their highly successful Lookingglass Alice and Moby Dick adaptations--yet I fear the impressive ambitiousness of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein exceeded my capacity to appreciate it all.

My above rating of @@@@ (out of 5) certainly represents a positive take, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing this show within Chicago's historic pumping station (although it isn't for young kids).

Albeit with great regard for many aspects of the endeavor, including some glorious acting and brilliant costuming, in full I can't cite it among my favorite plays, even just of those seen in this month of May.

Some of this I would say is "on me," as I was deficiently aware of the source material, and even had some trouble focusing during the early stages of the dimly-lit first act, featuring some Victorian accents.

Of course, I can't write this review based on how much others may enjoy Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and even with the above candor, this is reflecting my personal experience in seeing it.

But while I liked it more than loved it, I will say that the work was sumptuously original...and witheringly visceral.

Perhaps take an extra shot or two of caffeine if you're going on a work night, but you can expect to be wowed by much of what you see.

As per this show's title and authorship credits, Lookingglass isn't presenting a play version of Frankenstein, based on the source novel by Mary Shelley.

Rather, Catlin newly wrote and directed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, from the book by Mary Shelley.

Yes, from what I've been able to gather about the original novel, what unfolds onstage stays largely true. There is a scientist named Victor Frankenstein, intent on creating a humanoid, who winds up giving life to a rather hideous--and deadly--creature, who the scientist then must pursue.

But this show also puts a good deal of focus on Mary Shelley telling the story, as she supposedly did during a trip spent at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

As chronicled at Lookingglass--augmented by some nice informational panels in the lobby--Mary (a superb Cordelia Dewdney) had traveled there in 1816 with her lover, the famed romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), and three companions, including the similarly immortalized poet Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher, who also winds up playing the creature, brilliantly).

The quintet--also including Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) and Byron's friend Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun)--engage in a competition to tell the best horror story, and as history knows, though she was just a teenager no one could outdo Mary's imagination.

So with the cast never expanding beyond the five performers though at times seeming two or three fold, we get the telling--and enacting of Frankenstein--with occasional reversion to the gathering of friends.

In part due to what I didn't know coming in--including Victor Frankenstein's kinship with a beautiful adopted sister, Elizabeth (also played by Dewdney), circumstances surrounding a much younger brother of theirs, the Creature's desire for a ladylove, etc.--it was all quite intense, including the physical acting by Gallagher, especially.

He is astonishing, and at times--particularly early in Act II--Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a ravishing joy, just for the eyeballs. 

Also in part due to Dewdney's nuance--and the cleverness of Catlin's script and direction--I came away with considerably more awareness about Mary Shelley and why she may have concocted her famed story.  

So this is clearly a piece of theater with a whole lot going on.

Sometimes it was more than I could readily appreciate--and whatever my lack of wherewithal, I had arrived with the best of hopes, like any other audience member--but at the very least Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a beast.

Including, at times, in the very best way.

No comments: