note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
It was a dark, dreary, stormy night. Thunder crashed as a famous group of writers vacationing in Villa Diodati Manor in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, entertained themselves by playing games, when Lord Byron issued a challenge - to each write a horror tale in four days. He would choose the winner, then send that story to his agent, with his endorsement, to get it printed. Thus begins Holland Productions’ regional premiere of Emily Dendinger’s two-act play, “Hideous Progeny,” the witty, parlor room story of how 18-year-old budding author, Mary Shelley, penned her famous, frightening novel, “Frankenstein,” in 1816, which she referred to as her “hideous progeny”.
Artistic Director-Director Krista D’Agostino has gathered a fine cast and crew in this rich production at Boston Playwrights Theatre. Sean A. Cote’s handsome set is balanced lavishly by Jackie Dalley’s gorgeous costumes and Michael Underhill’s dramatic lighting, especially during murky storm scenes. Sound designer Chris Larson heightens the pathos with crashing thunder, spattering rain, and occasional eerie sounds.
Dendinger attaches a different spin to Mary Shelley’s hideous progeny. She barely alludes to Mary’s inspiration or writing ability. Instead, she interweaves Mary’s birth that killed her mother 10 days later, (dying of puerpheral fever), and Mary’s several pregnancies (three of her four children died young) and miscarriage.
Dendinger pivots all characters around narcissistic, egotistical, cynical, and celebrated poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron, who swipes at everyone, in drunken tirades. He travels with his personal physician, affable Dr. Polidori, who demonstrates a scientific experiment that deeply influences Mary, and her creation of Frankenstein. Alex Simoes as the likable Polidori supplies comic relief, especially during his awkward flirtations with Swiss nursemaid Elise (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan).
Jealous of Mary’s literary genes - her parents were famous intellectual rebel writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft - Byron torments Mary, saying she killed her mother because of her birth. He taunts her, claiming her mother was mentally ill, citing her earlier suicide attempts, and he browbeats Mary’s noble, frail, lover-poet, Percy Shelley. Award-winning actor Victor Shopov portrays Byron with egotistical flourishes, yet reveals rare tender moments with Mary. He staggers, stumbles, swaggers. His every speech is an oration, declaration and accusation. Walking with his foot twisted, he reminds us that Byron was flawed, born with a club foot.
Sharply contrasting Byron’s self-indulgence and callousness is Nate Gundy as noble, caring, yet vulnerable Percy Shelley.
Pretty Julia Specht is charming and dignified as Mary, her ladylike demeanor at times ruffled by her occasional outbursts of self-defense and emotional needs. Spunky Maggie Erwin as Mary’s abrasive stepsister, Jane “Claire” Clairmont, and Byron’s sassy paramour, is also effective.
Don’t expect to see ghastly, ghostly images of Frankenstein or fantasies of phantasmagorical creatures in “Hideous Progeny”. For two hours, Dendinger creates a bird’s-eye view of three literary legends and a bygone era when creativity reigned among gods and muses.
BOX INFO: Two-act play, written by Emily Dendinger, presented by Holland Productions, through July 23 at Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m.; Thursday, pay-what-you-can, $5 minimum. Tickets are $15; students, seniors, $10. Visit hollandproductions.org or call 866-811-4111.