McCarter Theater’s presentation of the Chicago-based Lookingglass Theater’s production “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” — now on stage through November 3 — is not just fitting for the Halloween season, it reflects several points the Tony Award-winning professional theater is emphasizing during artistic director Emily Mann’s final year.
The first is work by women writers, and Mary Shelley stands out as a trailblazer whose description of the creation of her story is on page 26. The other is collaboration with other theater companies, such as the Lookingglass. And the third is the presentation of lively and engaging theater while speaking to social issues.
Lookingglass Theater’s David Catlin, the play’s writer and director, touches on the above points in his own words:
“Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus” is our first modern creation myth — our first science fiction — and it features our first mad scientist who embodies our desire to play God. “Frankenstein” is a dark and dread-filled tale born out of bad weather and a horror story contest between Romantic renegades.
How was this story brought to life by an 18-year-old girl (20 when she published it)? I’m fascinated by the blur between Mary’s novel of creation, rejection, and destruction and her own life of love, loss, and abandonment. I’m fascinated by how the human heart survives desolation and misery.
I think we, as artists, play God sometimes, too. We give breath to splotches of ink on a page — dialogue and stage directions — and create characters imbued (hopefully!) with human truth. We animate them with purpose and need, with love and toil and joy and ambition and jealousy and nobility and all the light and dark contours of the human heart. We construct worlds for them to live in and experience.
Frankenstein provokes a lot of important questions, like:
What happens when we play God? What drives the human impulse to create and destroy? To make and remake our world? To create breakthroughs in science and technology, to make art, to create community, family, et cetera? Creation may start from the noblest impulses — to make the world better, healthier, easier, more verdant … But at what cost?
What ethical responsibilities do we owe our creations and the world we create them for? What corrupts our noblest impulses? What do we need to feed and nurture our humanity? Love? Companionship? What happens in the absence of love and companionship? Grief? Desolation? Do we become meaner? More monstrous? How does the human heart possibly survive this?
(Lookingglass Theater) loves classic stories. We love stories that are epic in scale and expansive in scope. We love stories that are impossible to stage and that demand our audiences to engage their imaginations. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is all that. She takes us across Europe and beyond, and also takes us inside (creator Victor Frankenstein’s) obsession, his blinding ambition, and his madness.
And this dark tale has a lot of story that haunts the sky above our heads. We incorporate elements of circus to give audiences some of the visceral, dizzying feeling that Victor Frankenstein experiences in the book. The animation of the body is very important to Mary Shelley’s story — much of our storytelling is physical and incorporates movement and dance. Live and recorded movements heighten the sense of horror and the cinematic scale of the visual storytelling.
Just as Mary, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont took shelter inside the Villa Diodati during a violent storm, we tell each other stories to entertain, to unsettle, and to engage. We huddle to tell a story that explores the darkest edges of the human psyche, and to celebrate the heart’s capacity to endure the deepest profundity of ache and pain.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Lookingglass Theater Company at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through November 3. $25 to $80. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.