Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review: Frankenstein is Fantastic in Phantasmagoria

By Ed Malin

Phantasmagoria; or Let Us Seek Death! is now playing at LaMaMa in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein”. The piece is directed and conceived by Randolph Curtis Rand, written by Chana Porter, produced by Eric Borlaug and features puppetry by Benjamin Stuber.  Some of these creative people have recent Spotlight On interviews on this site.
Some of the things that we take for granted nowadays did not exist in quite the same organized forms 200 years ago.  This multimedia performance focuses on two of those related things: horror and feminism.  As becomes evident near the end, when a college class analyses “Frankenstein” and the circle of writers from which it emerged, the author’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, gave her daughter the courage to try to change the world through unorthodox love and empowerment.  Yet, those who tried incurred great personal losses.
photo by Theo Cote
In 1816, Mary Shelley (Jane Bradley) spent the summer near Geneva with her poet husband Percy (Demetrius Stewart) (the couple already had a child and had finally wed), Mary’s half-sister Clare Clairmont (Kate Melby), the sex-symbol poet Lord Byron, and Byron’s physician, Dr. Polidori (Andrew Lynch).  Spending their time indoors, bored by current scary tales (gothic fiction had only been around for fifty years), the gang vowed to write their own frightful stories.  And they did!  Polidori wrote the first Vampire story, which spawned Marchner’s opera and influenced everyone from Bram Stoker to Gilbert & Sullivan.  Mary Shelley wrote an even darker piece, about a monster brought to life and then shunned by society.  Eerily resonating with events of her life (lack of support from her or her husband’s family but also a distancing which may have helped her to be authentically creative), the story comes to life onstage through ten foot-tall puppets, ghastly projections and voice modulation that is still giving me the chills on a nice, warm day.  We see the monster fend for himself in the wild, observe an impoverished family, and then stalk his creator.  Great big eyeballs and towering contraptions that require multiple  puppeteers (Benjamin Stuber, Josephine Stewart, Ashley Winkfield) join with Jessica Greenberg’s lighting and sound design to create some inhuman-feeling art.  But, then, what is human?  Aha, a hard question!
As the fiction unfolds, we also learn that Claire committed suicide after having a child with Byron.  Polidori also may have committed suicide.  Percy Shelley drowned and Mary raised their last surviving child while writing and ultimately trying to appear socially respectable.
The set (designed by Randolph Curtis Rand and Marc Bovino) has a captivating display of alchemical symbols painted on the floor.  The characters quote from Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus, Rumi, Blake, Milton, Mary Wollstonecraft, and many more literati.  Much research has gone into this interesting production.  As the characters suggest, they were indeed embracing what today would be called free love and non-monogamy.  A modern and fresh feel comes from the cast: youthful, handsome in Kima Baffour’s costumes, and ethnically diverse.