By Peter Thomas Ricci
Lookingglass Theatre’s production of “Moby Dick” – both in its 2016 world premiere and its 2017 re-staging – was among the most spectacular works of theater I have ever seen on a Chicago stage, so when I learned that ensemble member David Catlin (who wrote and directed the show) was preparing a new staging of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, I eagerly awaited Catlin’s treatment on another work of classic American literature.
And having seen the production, I can confidently state that Catlin has not lost his touch: Lookingglass’ “Frankenstein” is every bit as daring and interdisciplinary as its “Moby Dick,” with elements of musical theater, ballet, and drama all merging into a wholly unique experience that vividly captures the themes of Shelley’s novel, among them death, ambition, and frailty.
The year is 1814, and Mary Wollstonecraft (Cordelia Dewdney) is traveling with her lover and future husband Percy Shelley (Walter Briggs), his rowdy, larger-than-life friend Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher), and their two friends John Polidori (Debo Balogun) and Claire Clairmont (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel). As they drink and jest, Percy concludes telling a horror story, one that, we learn, is part of a competition proposed by Byron – who can write the best horror tale. Despite the overwhelming sexism of Percy and Byron, Mary begins sharing her story, and thus, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his sad creation commences.
The key to Catlin’s production lies in its multifaceted nature. No mere literary adaptation, Catlin has crafted a work that is as much about Mary Shelley as it is her novel – in other words, Catlin is just as interested in the conditions and experiences that created the classic novel we all know, and those passions reverberate in every scene, with all the aforementioned actors changing costumes and taking on the roles of Victor, the Creature, and others. And as previously mentioned, Catlin is not content with ordinary drama or ordinary staging: the stage opens in unexpected ways; actors walk amongst and behind the audience; various kinds of fabric are raised to surround and obscure the stage; and various kinds of music are utilized, from Gonzalez-Cadel’s haunting singing to a disturbing barrage of heavy metal sounds at the Creature’s birth (huge shoutout to Rick Sims for that).
And that’s the note I should end upon: the severity of these themes, and the way that Catlin’s direction – alongside the superlative work of his cast and crew (Sully Ratke’s costume design deserves special mention) – does not compromise on them. While Mary and Percy may have been in love, their romance was similarly defined by infidelities and broken promises; Mary would give birth to five children, but only one would survive; and while Victor Frankenstein accomplishes the miracle of reanimating dead tissue, he then abandons his bloody, horrifying Creature, leaving the blood-soaked creation to wander the streets of Bavaria to endless beatings and abuse. Frankenstein is not a monster story; rather, it is a metaphorical treatise on life, fertility, and human ambition, and as he did with Moby Dick, Catlin has beautifully brought those themes to the stage.
Playing at Lookingglass Theater at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, through August 4.
Tickets are available at lookingglasstheatre.org or 312-337-0665.