Thomas Burns Scully
Frankenstein’s monster is arguably the most iconic horror figure of all time. A timeless and timely expression of humanity’s need for self-perpetuation, coupled with the bastardization of the powers of creation through the employment of science. Although I personally take issue with the story’s depiction of scientists and the scientific method (which grows less timely, and more worryingly anti-intellectual as the years march on) I’m quite a fan, particularly of Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the role (His picture hangs on my bedroom wall). Working at the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ pub and club I recreated the re-animation experiment hundreds of times, and the thrill of yelling “It’s alive!” never wore off. So what of the woman who created the source material? Mary Shelley has yet to have a notable modern actress star in a biopic of her life, so most of us (myself included) don’t know a lot about her. To fulfill that need, I assume, Ophelia Theatre created ‘Mary’s Little Monster’, a play that tells the story of a troubled woman and her troubled life, and the circumstances surrounding her creation of an icon.
It follows Mary Shelley (Then Mary Godwin) and her husband-to-be, noted poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as they spend a holiday in mainland Europe in the company of Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and Dr. John William Polidori. As incessant Swiss rain pelts the villa where they reside, they get caught up in one another, intellectually, sexually and emotionally. Byron throws down the gauntlet for a challenge. They must each write a tale of phantasmagoria in an attempt to stir up the others. As some of them take up the challenge, the group of them get more and more mixed up in one another. They become a turgid swamp of wretched goings on… and out of this is born Shelley’s meisterwerk: ‘Frankenstein’.
I found the affair to be rather a let-down. Performances ranged from serviceable to well above-average, but the writing was unfortunately messy and unfocused. I’m assuming a great deal of research was put in to this script, the reading of diaries and so-forth. As I said, I’m not hugely familiar with the lives of those involved, so I cannot say for certain what is fact and what comes from the realm of imagination. However, the show felt at once overly-fanciful and staggeringly constrained by historical fact. In much the manner of shows like ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Spartacus’, there was a consistent presence throughout of carnal knowledge or the sexual tension aroused by lack of same. I’m not against this on principle, ‘Je Suis Pamela’ and so on, but at a certain point it feels like the writer (Thomas Kee) is either pandering far too hard to what he perceives as a modern audience’s sensibilities, or working far too publicly on his soft-core Lord Byron slash-fic. This, when played opposite Kee's constant poorly-explained allusions to backstory makes the play feel like a confusing romance novel. There were often times when a character would mention something that had happened in London months previously, as if the audience had a copy of the 1816 Almanac on hand at all times. I, like most people, consider myself above-averagely read, but I have to admit, my Georgian era TMZ knowledge is a little rusty, and I could have used a few more lampshades and exposition-dumps.
More importantly, the script could never find a point of focus. Was it about Mary’s search for self-validation? The feeling of being an outcast? Lord Byron’s omnipresent libido and accompanying penis? The writing competition? Claire’s promiscuity? With so many stories interwoven, Kee’s writing never seemed to settle on what the main thrust of the story was. Nothing felt like it had an appropriate emotional weight or time commitment for its position of importance in the script. Because of that, the story dragged, and, at two hours in runtime felt like two and a half.
Performance wise, the show was decent. Logan T. Sutton’s Percy Shelley was suitably dour and moody. Megan Gaber’s Claire Clairmont was naughty but nice. Michael Tubman’s John Pollidori was a little dull, but pleasantly repressed. Kaitlyn Schirard as Mary was… tolerable, with occasional shining moments, but none of the rare note and fire I wanted from her. The only out and out superstar was Andy Dispensa as Lord Byron. Throughout, he seemed like he was having a ball with everything he was doing, strutting about as if he truly believed he was God’s gift to women, men, the universe and existence in general. He was arrogant, precocious and braggadocios to the point that when his vulnerability and insecurity did shine through, it felt like the most natural, and yet unexpected thing in the world.
And so, despite a few highlights (and Director Samuel Adams’ superbly decorated set), the production was largely unremarkable. It served as a good point of reference for tangential learning, but due to a lack of a physical program citing bibliographical material, there is no factual context for the history referenced in the play. As such, I don’t know how much weight to give any of the history I learned by watching the play. I’d be interested in reading more in an academic context, but the events in the show could be paraphrased from ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ for all I know. It was messy, with occasional moments of clarity, a decent cast, one stand-out performance, but not a lot else. It felt like a rough, overlong first draft. I’d be interested in working on this play with a dramaturge and workshop it, but as it stands, it’s just a difficult thing to get through. Until next time, Ophelia Theatre.
‘Mary’s Little Monster’ has five performances remaining, on the 30th, 31st, 1st, 6th and 8th, all at 8pm. Tickets $18. It will be staged at Ophelia Theatre’s space in Astoria. Details and ticketing links at opheliatheatre.com.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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