note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Carl A. Rossi
Elise … Lydia Barnett-Mulligan
Claire Clairmont … Maggie Erwin
Percy Shelley … Nathanial Grundy
Lord Byron … Victor Shopov
Dr. Polidori … Alex Simoes
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin … Julia Specht
Understudy (Byron) … Scott Sweatt
There have been numerous stage and film versions of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, or THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (1818), beginning with five dramatizations in 1823, alone, but until now I only knew of two spins (both cinematic) on that famous Lake Geneva summer of 1816 where the spark of Ms. Shelley’s novel was struck by Lord Byron’s challenge as to who in his entourage could write the best horror story on short notice: (1) the witty, elegant prologue to THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) in which Elsa Lanchester portrayed Ms. Shelley and, later, its Monster Bride, and (2) Ken Russell’s over-the-top GOTHIC (1986), with the subtext played as text. Now there is Emily Dendinger’s HIDEOUS PROGENY, receiving its regional premiere through Holland Productions where she is Resident Playwright. Ms. Dendinger dwells more upon the tempestuous affairs of two Romantic women than on the creative process with its own torments and rewards, resulting in a very talky (and soapy) evening --- apart from punctuations of thunder and lightning and a poisoned frog being scientifically resurrected, there is little mood or atmosphere, here (all that rain and dampness, yet the fireplace is lined with books); somewhere, somehow, Mary dashes off a first draft of FRANKENSTEIN as heroines do and wins Lord Byron’s bet.
Perhaps my reservations lie more with the production, itself. Kristina D’Agostino has directed at a whip-crack pace as if frightened by all those words, and the audience must jog alongside her young, energetic cast in order to keep up --- an additional half-hour’s playing time would enable four of her actors to relax and deepen and allow her audience to drink in what all the chatter is about, nor has Ms. D’Agostino suggested any homoeroticism between Byron and Shelley, where words are not needed (a look ... a touch ...). Ms. Dendinger has written a chamber piece for six instruments, with the two poets as trumpets, and Victor Shopov (the company’s Director of Finance and Operations) and Nathaniel Gundy declaim well, enough, for declamation’s sake, but Ms. D’Agostino has not orchestrated them when in ensemble, making Julia Specht and Maggie Erwin all but shriek when thrown against them; when playing together, the actresses lapse into their natural registers though their motto seems to be “English Accents Be Damned”: “nature” emerges from Ms. Specht as “nay-cha”. Alex Simoes makes a sweet Chekhovian nebbish out of Dr. Polidori (who, as history paints him, was anything but) and Lydia Barnett-Mulligan is a delightful Swiss maid (with accent!); since theirs are peripheral characters, Mr. Simoes and Ms. Barnett-Mulligan have the quieter duets and, thus, are welcome company.
The production’s electric candles and modern suitcases work against the illusion of this being 1816 --- how differently this cast would act and move, carrying real flames, instead! Jackie Dulley has designed some correct high-waisted Empire gowns, making the women look soft and flowing in repose; their hoydenish frisking about, though, makes me ask what are they wearing beneath? (Despite their rebelliousness, these are still gentlewomen, existing for their men.) The foundation of any period role lies in its undergarments, and once an actress accepts that undergarments are history lessons, defining Woman but also keeping her in her place, she and her director and her costumer will have the jump on any period-script from Day One --- for this production, Ms. Dulley has partially jumped, alone.