More than a century before Boris Karloff glued those funny-looking bolts to the side of his head, 19-year-old Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, a Gothic horror teeming with undercurrents of medical terror, unearthly technology, and fear of the power of creation in all its forms. It remains potent even after countless bastardizations, as does the story of Mary Shelley herself, half of the sort of celebrity couple for which they have well and truly broken the mold.
Playwright Anne Bertram, then, had the pick of a couple of compelling story lines. With Frankenstein Incarnate, she has decided to go with the combo platter, weaving the outlines of Mary Shelley's life with vignettes from her most renowned creation. While it helps to have some knowledge of Mary Shelley's biography and a glancing familiarity with her book going in, Bertram eventually manages a nice, satisfying thematic synchrony between her two tales.
First, though, it takes a bit of getting used to. After a frantic snippet involving an Arctic search for Frankenstein's monster, the action for this all-woman cast begins at the grave of Mary's mother, groundbreaking feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary (Stacey Poirier) is a teenager at this point, but by the end of the scene she's in the arms of the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Delta Rae Giordano). Much high-flown conversation ensues, as does a pattern of personal destruction (self-inflicted and otherwise) that becomes a prominent theme for what follows.
The eight-woman cast tackles a variety of roles in the segments from Mary Shelley's novel, switching off who plays Frankenstein, who plays his creation, and who tackles minor roles. This strategy could be unwelcomingly disorienting, but Bertram is deft about having the characters clue in the audience to their identities early in each scene. And the novel comes through here with all its ambiguity. Frankenstein rejects his creation out of fear and disgust, while the (quite articulate) creature begins life benignly and requests of his maker the gift of a mate with whom to spend his tortured isolation.
The famous scene follows in which Mary and Percy, along with Mary's stepsister, Claire (Noë Tallen), and poet Lord Byron (Katie Guentzel), are stuck indoors and spin scary stories (in real life, this was supposedly the genesis of Mary Shelley's novel). Here it's written more as domestic horror, with Mary and Percy's marriage going to hell and Byron having accidentally knocked up Claire. Tensions aren't exactly eased when word arrives that Percy's ex-wife and Mary's half-sister Fanny have both died.
Guentzel is a great deal of fun here, her Byron a sardonic asshole whose affection for those around him is in no small part enhanced by his appreciation for their foibles. Giordano is less convincing as Percy, though Poirier draws her out in a conversation about their disintegrating marriage just before Percy dies at sea. Director Carin Bratlie doesn't aim this work toward realism, or expect actresses to entirely channel the spirits of men dead for many decades.
At the end, Mary performs a bit of gruesome reanimation of her own, with questionable dramatic success, but Bertram has done enough interpolation from Mary's novel to drive home her point about creation (and re-creation) possessing enough power to drive low the brightest among us. At the bottom line, this is a decent if unexceptional staging of a difficult work, though Theatre Unbound tackles it with purpose.
Bertram, for her part, delivers a work overflowing with ideas and understanding. In this telling, Mary Shelley's brilliance brings her scant consolation in a life filled with death and pain (only one of her four children lived to adulthood). Her novel's subtitle refers to a mythological seeker of understanding, who is finally unlashed from his rock of torment only to see his surrogate (Frankenstein) burned yet again. Whether thinking of Percy, or Frankenstein, or Mary herself, it's hard not to smell the char from those who put their hands too close to the fire.
FRANKENSTEIN INCARNATE: THE PASSIONS OF MARY SHELLEY
Theatre Unbound at the Neighborhood House
through November 17