“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” a Chicago import electrifying McCarter’s stage through November 3, excels on numerous levels.
Writer-director David Catlin, of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, has exquisitely combined literary with theatrical techniques to show Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley’s story as a double tragedy, one regarding Victor Frankenstein, the young biologist moved by his mother’s death from yellow fever to reanimate the lifeless, the other regarding the Creature he ingeniously fashions in what turns out to be a profoundly regrettable success.
Catlin adheres closely to Shelley’s narrative, unlike many film versions, and depicts a Creature able to learn, be articulate, and have the capacity to be a civilized member of society. That is if he were not rejected by his creator — and Victor’s initial revulsion to his shoddy outward craftsmanship is the first significant horror of the story, more noteworthy even than his hubristic temerity to restore life.
Catlin’s fidelity, and enhancement, of Shelley’s themes, observations, and undercurrents — the Creature doesn’t know his strength until he kills — is among the gratifying wonders of this production.
Theatrically, it’s magnificent, on a scale of an opera or grand Shakespearean production though contained in an intimate vertically pitched rectangle resting on McCarter’s vast stage with the audience viewing from all sides and angles, and characters appearing from amid and behind them.
Images abound. Parallels from within Shelley’s tale, devised as part of a contest between her, her husband, Percy Byshe Shelley, their friend, Lord Byron, and two others to compose the scariest ghost story — using history, the Bible, and literature — provide tremendous texture that illuminates the production and shows the intelligence and understanding that went into forming it.
Catlin peppers his text with lines from Percy Shelley and Byron’s work. Shakespeare and other poets also get their due. The thrilling part is these references never come off as flashy or self-conscious but as a way the educated might speak to, and compliment, each other by using their own words both aptly and ironically.
Timing is critical, and Catlin is a master of creating effects that are honest and affecting. The various elements of theatrical production mesh gorgeously and conspire to achieve a marvelous spectacle that is also intellectually deep and emotionally involving.
Daniel Ostling’s set, a construction of simple planks, doors, and traps when viewed without some evocative and time-establishing props upon it, takes you a myriad of locations and atmospheres, from Alpine climes to Georgian England and the North Pole.
William C. Kirkham’s flawless, collaborative lighting sets moods, allows for shadows, establishes locale, and adds to Catlin’s knack of knowing when that bare, grisly arm should emerge from the ground, when a child should be caught skipping across a meadow, or the Creature should emerge from an unexpected place.
Sully Ratke’s costume design and Rick Sims’ sound design and attendant score are equally felicitous. This “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is about as complete an example of theater art as you will find anywhere and impresses by sticking to theatrical and storytelling basics while soaring to heights of intellect and shrewd artistic composition.
The brilliance includes the acting. The cast purrs in classical tones that are musical and mirror the vaulted feel of Catlin’s production while seeming natural and establishing their several characters.
Each actor plays at least two parts, most from Shelley’s story, but also from the occasion in which Shelley composes her tale, that night in Switzerland when young literary lights compete to terrify each other. Their parts are listed as being Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister who is pregnant with Byron’s child, but they are most splendid and effective in their “Frankenstein” roles.
Cordelia Dewdney is heartbreaking, conveying sincerity and longing as Elizabeth Lavenza, who has sisterly and romantic affection for Victor Frankenstein. Dewdney both charms and elicits sympathy as a loved one as neglected by Victor as his Creature is. As Mary Shelley, she is a match for Percy (Walter Briggs) and Byron (Keith D. Gallagher), who don’t believe a woman and an unrecognized writer can vie with them regarding creativity and ability to chill. Dewdney is also supple and telling in scenes that involve circus skills.
Briggs provides an expansive, heroic performance that captures Victor Frankenstein’s torment, confusion, and tragedy. Watching him and Dewdney build and present their characters is as exciting as any part of Catlin’s production.
So is Gallagher’s work as a Creature that evokes pity and terror as he negotiates his way through the world and deftly delivers lofty, plaintive speeches. He is also quite playful as Lord Byron.
Amanda Raquel Martinez enlivens her roles and exhibits gorgeous musical tones as she plays Frankenstein’s doomed mother heading to her grave. Debo Balogun is wittily offhand as Polidori and the perfect companion to Frankenstein as both a lifelong friend and the sea captain who rescues him.
Though depicting the real-life literary figures creates a firm framework for Catlin’s script, their appearance between scenes from Mary’s story sometimes jars as an interruption, even as those sequences establish Mary as a woman who is asserting and creating herself, separate from a relationship and artistic subordination to Percy.
Catlin’s achievement is great and perhaps most gratifying in its smart and sure handed use of theater. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is a tribute to taste and sensibility — one that uses theatrical crafts wisely.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, November 3. $25 to $110. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.