Thomas Burns Scully
- New York Critic
In Phantasmagoria, puppetry, live-action, melodrama, fact and fantasy meet on stage to form an unhappy melancholy splatter. A blending of Mary Shelley’s life and the story of her meisterwork Frankenstein, it aims to prove a point about the author, her poet husband Percy Bysshe and the tumult of their lives. Unfortunately, whatever that point is becomes lost in the messiness of the production and the vaguity of the script. LaMama’s attempt to tell this story is commendable and often valiant, but the work presented feels like a workshop rather than a complete piece. Occasional glimmers of brilliance sneak through: Andrew Lynch’s portrayal of Dr. Polidori, some of the puppetry, and various thoughtful insights in to Shelley and the world she came from. However, as a complete work, this work feels incomplete.
As a narrative piece, which it sometimes seems to be, Phantasmagoria is difficult to follow. As good as Jane Bradley’s portrayal of Mary Shelley is, the world around her is frequently disorientating to the point of disconnection. Writer Chana Porter and Director Randolph Curtis Rand’s production is working so hard to be different and experimental that the need for dissonance overtakes the play’s capacity for storytelling. The audience is thrown from the bacchanalian revelry of the Shelleys' famed weekend by the lake with Byron to a dysmorphic puppet-show recreation of the story of Frankenstein so wantonly, and often for such great lengths of time, that there is never any clarity as to which characters they should be putting stock in. As a result, the show feels like it has no focus.
Offering sporadic clarity is ensemble member Josephine Stewart, who acts in the capacity of a lecturer figure at times. She converses with the audience, spouting thoughtful feminist analysis of Frankenstein and breaking down the themes of the story in the context of the age. This is genuinely interesting, and appears to offer the play’s thesis. However, the philosophy she espouses only seems to cover forty percent of what the show communicates. A little elucidation is a dangerous thing. The knowledge she communicates serves to highlight the gaps it leaves and so emphasizes the confusing nature of the show, creating as many problems as it solves.
As a work of design, the show is occasionally beautiful. Some of the puppetry (by Benjamin Stuber) is excruciatingly good. Some of it is vinegar-makingly bad. A big as life humanoid monster puppet is used for large swathes of the second act, and it could not feel more lifeless. It’s movements resemble that of the worst Chuck-E-Cheese animatronic and painful attention is drawn to its puppeteers at all times. Given the amount of time it’s on stage, this is unforgivable. Particularly when contrasted with the final image of the play: a giant, fifteen-foot-high walkabout puppet that appears to glide through the space as if a spirit. This puppet is gorgeous, and begs the question: if they could make a puppet look this good, how did they make one that looked that bad?
Overall, Phantasmagoria is messy. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s blessed with good (and pleasingly diverse) actors, but cursed with a script that’s having an identity crisis at all times. It manages to both over-explain and under-explain, to do several things right, but also to do many things wrong. Some of the puppetry is good, some terrible. It’s insightful and yet also painfully non self-aware. It is self-contradictory in almost every facet of itself. In a word: monstrous.
Phantasmagoria; Or Let Us Seek Death! runs at LaMama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre until November 6th. For more information and ticketing see lamama.org
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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Photo: The cast of Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! (Theo Cote)