The Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, now at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center for a Halloween run, is the latest example of the Chicago company’s vision and wisdom in staging literary classics.
Adapted and directed by David Catlin, the visually intriguing piece features a cast of five remarkably talented actors portraying roughly 20 different characters. Among these are the Frankenstein author; her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley; writer John Polidori (pioneer of vampire literature); Romantic poetry icon Lord Byron; and his pregnant paramour, Claire Clairmont.
Their historic social gathering on a “dreary night” in Switzerland gave birth to the world-famous novel, with Mary Shelley prevailing in a competition among them to conjure the most terrifying tale.
Catlin uses that get-together as a framework. At rise, we’re eavesdroppers on the group, seen through a sheer screen. A thunderous intro to Shelley’s narration has the screen plummeting to the stage floor, forming an icy terrain — the arctic background from which Shelley’s flashback tale proceeds.
The effect is courtesy of Daniel Ostling (scenic design), William Kirkham (lighting), and Rick Sims (sound), whose brilliant collaboration gives life to Catlin’s inventive transitions between the parlor narrative and the novel’s action. From there, a variety of devices engage our imaginations, including some spectacular dancing angels of death.
Using Mary as narrator and ensemble member smartly fixes a female presence as the play’s indispensable element. This serves three purposes: easing readers’ frequent discomfort in sympathizing with monster-maker protagonist Victor, reflecting the monster’s humanity, and focusing on Shelley as both author and creator of the beast — poignantly conveyed in their cautious, caring interaction at the top of Act II.
Some exquisite female vocals and original music enhance the action, and choreography is also central to Catlin’s vision. There are several moments of aerial suspension and times where the actors range beyond the stage, scaling the theater’s built-in ladders and balcony areas.
But it is Cordelia Dewdney’s performance as Mary that is the heart of the play. Even among a cast whose physical work is athletic and balletic, she stands out. Her movement is entrancing. She brings versatility and presence to additional roles as Victor’s betrothed, Elizabeth, and the manufactured mate-to-be of the monster.
Also impressive is Keith D. Gallagher’s transformation from Byron to the beast. As the poet, he flirts with caricature, but his power and sincerity as the monster reveal an actor of genuine depth and skill. Walter Briggs (Percy), too, renders a strong, vivid performance, driven by emotional conflict and a tortured search for self.
At some level, though, all the impressive elements fall short of a sufficiently involving whole.
Its period language is dense and stylized, occasionally standing between the characters’ passion and the viewer’s empathy. The death of Victor’s brother in Act II is undermined by its reference in letters exchanged during Act I. The murder of Victor’s friend, Henry, seems an afterthought.
Transitions between parlor and novel advance the action, but not — until much later — the guests’ emotional entanglements, and the grim conclusion feels dramatically detached. Repetitive knelling after each death invokes Hemingway more than the Gothic.
None of this diminishes the show’s artistry. Lookingglass is a genuine star in Chicago’s glittering theater firmament, and Catlin and company incorporate sensuality and social comment in a tale frequently told superficially.
It’s likely that greater immediacy and coherence will evolve as this technically complex show settles into its Princeton digs. Besides — Halloween is upon us. Timing, mood, and quality of work serve the moment.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Through Nov. 3 at the Matthews Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets start at $25. Information: 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org.