Review: “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”

Keith Gallagher, Artistic Associate Walter Briggs and Cordelia Dewdney. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through Aug. 4
Tickets: $45 to $86
Phone: 312-337-0665

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

In a program interview for the world premiere of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” writer and director David Catlin is asked what makes the story right for his Lookingglass Theatre Company. “We love stories that are epic in scale and expansive in scope,” he replies. “We love stories that are impossible to stage and that demand our audiences to engage their imaginations.”

“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” certainly fits the bill. Rather than focusing just on “Frankenstein, or, A Modern Prometheus,” Shelley’s 1818 novel often hailed as the first science fiction and best horror story ever, Catlin brings to life the circumstances surrounding its creation. Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” at Court Theatre earlier this season, one of several tributes to the book’s 200th anniversary, also did this to some extent, but the Lookingglass version weaves the strongest web of connections I’ve seen between the 18-year-old’s tale of obsession and destruction and the love, loss and loneliness in her own life.

Staged in the round with essential contributions from circus designer Sylvia Hernandez-DeStasi and rigging designer Rigability Inc., the show tells the story within a story within a story with only five actors. We see them first on a stormy night in 1816, gathered cozily together in Lord Byron’s (Keith D. Gallagher) Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Besides Byron and Mary Shelley (Cordelia Dewdney), they are Mary’s lover, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), her step sister Claire Clairmont (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who is pregnant by Byron, and family friend, Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun).

Percy has just finished telling his ghost story, and both he and Byron are claiming victory in the competition the latter suggested, when they are reminded that Mary hasn’t had a turn. Pressed because she’s been having trouble coming up with something, she begins with the famous line, “It was on a dreary night of November.” The scene slowly morphs from the romantically lit room to the frozen north; the fur rugs beneath the actors are pulled up as cloaks, and the scrim that encircled the stage comes down. Percy becomes the near-frozen Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Briggs), who is rescued from the ice by Dr. Polidori as Captain Walton (Balogun), and once revived, recounts his background and what led up to him chasing a giant creature on the ice.

Catlin compresses the epistolary novel, in particular skimming over the parts of the Creature’s narrative that don’t pertain directly to Dr. Frankenstein. His emphasis is on showing how the doctor’s compulsion to play God by creating life turns him into the real monster, causing him to abuse the boundaries of science, abandon the Creature who only craves love and companionship, and lose everyone he cares about.

While the logistics of the doubling are daunting, the brilliance of Catlin’s conception is the parallels it allows him to draw. Not only does Briggs play Percy playing Victor Frankenstein, Dewdney plays Mary playing Elizabeth Lavenza, the adopted half sister he falls in love with, yet abandons for long periods of time to do his research and perform his experiments. Mary’s loss of her mother is mirrored by Victor and Elizabeth’s loss of theirs, and the death of her son William finds its way into the story in the murder of Victor’s younger brother.

Gallagher’s Lord Byron gets to be the mistreated, misunderstood Creature, and Gonzalez-Cadel’s Claire takes on a variety of roles, including both Victor’s mother and little William. Balogun’s Dr. Polidori is multiple characters, too, among them Victor’s best friend, Henry, as well as Captain Walton. There also are some subtler references; for example, Dewdney’s Mary is the companion Frankenstein makes for the Creature, then destroys fearing they’ll procreate and populate the world. This suggests Mary’s rumored affair with — and pregnancy by — Byron.

Complicating the storytelling even more, Mary as Elizabeth sometimes steps out of character and calls Victor “Percy,” conflating the man she loves but fears losing with the damaged Frankenstein who is the cause of his own and others’ destruction. The tone becomes increasingly dark as the evening progresses, and Dewdney is especially moving in the young woman’s expressions of insecurity and loneliness, which are met by a combination of caring and cluelessness by Briggs’ Percy. Her coda about what eventually happened to the five who gathered at the Villa Diodati that night is sobering.

As is usually the case at Lookingglass, the staging is exceptionally inventive, occasionally astonishing. Every part of the theater is used, from trap doors (for graves and such) to the rafters. Wood-and-glass cases that descend from the ceiling are filled with university specimens. In one stunning sequence, Frankenstein imagines that the creature he’s making from dead body parts will look like Leonardo DaVinci’s “Vitruvian Man” suspended in air. No wonder he flees in horror from the bloody reality.

Sully Ratke is responsible for costumes that range from the Romantics’ bohemian chic to peasants’ rags, the Creature’s gore, and Frankenstein’s increasingly tattered cloak. Daniel Ostling designed the ingenious and evocative set. William C. Kirkham’s lighting is magical and sometimes otherworldly, and Rick Sims’ sound design and music contribute to the oft-changing mood.

Lately, several Lookingglass shows — “Lookingglass Alice,” “Moby Dick,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” — are proving to have an extended life. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” deserves to be one of them.