Lookingglass Theatre

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

At the Lookingglass Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago –Mary Shelley’s famous horror novel “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” was published in 1818 and to commemorate the 200th anniversary of that epic event, several Chicago theaters have presented their own versions of the story. The Lookingglass Theatre is concluding the parade of “Franksenstein” adaptations with David Catlin’s version, called “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

The Lookingglass title seems redundant. All versions of the novel are in some sense “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” After all, Mary Shelley wrote the book, and published it when she was 18. But Catlin puts Mary Shelley on stage not only as the author, but also interweaves her into the novel’s narrative, with a generous helping of the distinctive Lookingglass artistic and theatrical sensibility, notably circus effects and striking costume, lighting, and sound designs.

                             Photo Credit – Liz Lauren

“Frankenstein” has become a part of Western pop culture in the form of the original novel, movies, television adaptations, and even a musical comedy (thank you, Mel Brooks). Most depart, sometimes wildly, from the original novel, with a ploy that goes something like this:

Victor Frankenstein, a German scientist, wants to create a human being for the good of humanity, but instead he produces a monster. Frankenstein creates the monster by assembling parts of dead bodies and activating the creature with electricity. The monster, which has no name in the book, initially is a gentle, intelligent creature. But it arouses fear and loathing wherever he is seen because of its hideous appearance. Frankenstein himself rejects the monster, and its terrible loneliness drives it to seek revenge by murdering the scientist’s wife, brother, and best friend. Frankenstein dies while attempting to find and kill the monster, who disappears into the Arctic at the end of the novel.

Most adaptations have concentrated on the frightening and spooky elements in the story, but the author touches on serious philosophical and moral themes. The most prominent, and relevant even today, are the possible risks of scientific experimentation by “playing God” with the creation of human life. And there is the injustice of judging outsiders by their appearance.

Catlin constructs his adaptation as a play within a play, beginning with the famous gathering of Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Dr. John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician. The five are spending the summer of 1816 in Switzerland and one stormy night Byron proposes a contest to pass the time, with each member of the group trying to create the best horror story. Mary’s tale of the creation of Frankenstein’s monster wins and a classic is born.

The Lookingglass audience doesn’t get a good look at the monster until its sudden appearance in the second act. The extended first act is is initially occupied with conversation among Mary and her clique, dominated by the imperious Byron in his exotic Eastern robes. The narrative then segways into the novel, with Frankenstein increasing obsessed with creating life that would liberate humanity from disease and other imperfections. But the scientist’s good intentions go wildly off the track when the monster experiences hatred and ostracism everywhere.  The creature’s sensitivity to his rejection turns him from a misunderstood creature into a true monster.

             Photo Credit – Liz Lauren

The Lookingglass production’s five actors each taking a major character and occasionally appearing as minor figures. Walter Briggs is English poet Percy Shelly. Keith Gallagher alternates between fellow poet Lord Byron and the monster. Debo Balogun is Polidori, Cordelia Dewdney is Mary, and Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel is Claire. Gallagher is particularly effective the suffering and ultimately vengeful monster in an evocative costume by Sully Ratke. The monster indeed is repulsive looking at the outset but as it grows in language skills its grotesque appearance is mitigated by our sympathy for its plight. Ultimately it turns violently against the society that relentlessly abuses him.

Ratke’s costumes firmly root the story in the Romantic era of the early 19th century England and the characters all speak the dialogue with an almost Elizabethan richness. This being a Lookingglass original, the staging is filled with inventive physical touches. The theatre is configured into a theater in the small playing area in the middle of the stage so that the audience encloses the action on four sides. At one moment we watch characters fighting for survival in a boat in the Arctic sea. The story shifts among interior and outdoor locations in Switzerland, Germany, and Scotland among other places in in western Europe.

Catlin uses every open space in the theater, with characters dashing up and down the aisles and around the back of the theater, startling patrons in the back row with a character suddenly appearing within touching distance behind them. There are realistic fight scenes and characters swinging from the rafters on hoops. The quick changes offstage and the physical activity on stage testify to a company that is in fine physical condition.

The visual and aural production ranks among the most imaginative and ingenious in Lookingglass history, and that is saying something. Salutes go not only to Ratke but to Daniel Ostling (scenic design), William C. Kirkham (lighting design), Rick Sims (sound design and original music), and Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi (circus design). They do wonders with dramatically lit netting, canvas, and drapes.

If there is a quibble with the adaptation (there can be done with the staging), it’s that the show sometimes gets talky, especially as it winds down at the end. But the versatility and commitment of the acting is outstanding throughout the performance and the creativity of the staging cannot be faulted. Viewers expecting Boris Karloff-ian thrills and chills from the adaptation may be disappointed, though there are a few effective frights along the way. And to its credit, the adaptation suggests the more profound issues at stage without lumbering the action with turgid profundities.

Keith Gallagher’s monster is particularly memorable, perhaps because Gallagher takes the most memorable character in the story. It’s a particularly impressive feat in tandem with his larger than life Lord Byron. Dialogue occasionally does slow down the play, indicating the play might be shortened a few minutes, especially down the stretch. But overall “Frankenstein….” qualifies as a distinguished addition to the honorable Lookingglass tradition.

The show gets a rating of .

“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” runs through August 4 at the Lookingglass Theatre inside the Water Tower Water Works, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Most performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $86. Call 312 337 0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.org.

 Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com                      May 2019

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