BOTTOM LINE: This one-of-a-kind production offers insight into the life of Mary Shelley while also giving a spooky rendition of her Frankenstein tale.
Just in time for Halloween, La MaMa’s Phantasmagoria takes Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein story and spins it on its head. While the original Frankenstein (which, as you may know, differs vastly from Hollywood's tale of a green monster) has been explored before in theater, this work takes a fascinating new spin by interweaving the biography of Shelley with that of her tale, mixing in bits of puppetry and a college literature class lecture, creating a singular show that gives Shelley the attention she so rightly deserves.
The work opens with teenage Mary Shelley (Jane Bradley) drunkenly frolicking with the Romantics, a group of writers and artists that shunned the rules of society during the nineteenth century. Mary has taken up with her soon-to-be husband, poet Percy Bysse Shelley (Demetrius Stewart), who has left his wife and children to be with her. Alongside her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Katie Melby), Mary and the other Romantics engage in drunken sexual escapades, occasionally showing off their artistic achievements. With her group's encouragement, and the influence of Percy's stories of medical school, Mary decides to pen a tale about a doctor that brings life to a cadaver. At this point her life story becomes linked alongside the story of Dr. Frankenstein (Demetrius Stewart) which leads into the story of his creature.
The story of Frankenstein's creature is augmented by spooky sound effects and suitably creepy puppets. In one scene the stare of a giant eye causes a character to run in terror. Shadow puppetry adds to the foreboding atmosphere while also imbuing a sense of childhood magic. Interspersed within the story are two pseudo college lit-class lectures given by Josephine Stewart. These lectures serve to provide a framework and add continuity to the multiple threads running through the play. In analyzing Mary Shelley's life and her creation, the professor acts as narrator, connecting Mary's many miscarriages to her obsession with gore and death. Scenes of Dr. Frankenstein looking down in horror at his work are juxtaposed with Mary looking down at her bloody bed clothes. Stewart points out that while those in Mary's social circle practiced free love, this was not such as easy task for women at this time, as birth control did not yet exist and sex often led to unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages.
The cast members prove themselves to be talented at taking on multiple roles, using puppetry, and providing differing voices and sound effects. Jane Bradley is particularly compelling at capturing Mary Shelley's transition from starry-eyed girl to jaded wife. Demetrius Stewart shows a knack for conveying emotional twists and turns as both Percy Bysse Shelley and Dr. Frankenstein. Gender- and color-blind casting adds contemporary issues to this old tale. The truly unique Phantasmagoria provides plenty of spooky fun, but, through its discussion of Mary Shelley and her work, also plenty of brain food that will leave you cerebrally stimulated long after the actors have taken their bows.
(Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! plays at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, through November 6, 2016. The running time is two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $30 ($25 students/seniors) and are available at lamama.org or by calling 646-430-5374.)
Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! is by Chana Porter. Directed by Randolph Curtis Rand. Set Design is by SNOW. Lighting Design and Sound Design are by Jessica Greenberg. Costume Design is by Kima Baffour. Puppetry by Benjamin Stuber. Stage Manager is Mimi Barcomi. General Manager is PlayMachine. An Eric Borlaug Production.
The cast is Jane Bradley, Josephine Stewart, Katie Melby, Equiano, Demetrius Stewart, Ashley Winkfield, Andrew Lynch and Benjamin Stuber.