By Alix Cohen
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, née Godwin, (1797–1851) is best known for writing the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Her parents— philosopher/feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who died a month after Mary was born) and incendiary political writer, William Godwin— left long shadows. The gothic author was educated far beyond that which was accustomed by girls of the day. She was, by all reports, anarchistic and high strung.
Ignoring societal judgment, Mary pursued a life of hardscrabble artistic endeavor, running off with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two were eventually able to marry and have children, but their relationship ran even deeper: It is said Mary edited Percy’s work— and she certainly promoted (he drowned in 1822).
Frankenstein was drafted during a visit to Lord Byron on Lake Geneva. Considered one of the leaders of the romantic movement, Byron was an infamous libertine, likely appealing to both Mary and Percy for multiple reasons. The house party decided to hold a ghost story contest, and it was then that 21-year-old Mary— stirred by conversation about the nature of life and scientist Luigi Galvani’s theories on reanimating the dead— conceived of her monster. The book’s small, first edition was published unattributed. Only after a theatrical adaptation did the author take credit on reprints.
Entering the theater, we see the most fantastic white smoke seemingly contained in a single shape, horizontal across the stage. Thunder and lightning (including strobe lights) startle the audience as voices echo from a distance: “Geneva 1816…”
Onstage Mary Shelley drinks from a small bottle. Not everyone will know the liquid was Laudanum. She dreams she’s a physician dealing with a cadaver in an anatomy theater. A white nightgown and Jody Christopherson’s opulent red hair create painterly vision as she relates Mary Shelley’s story (which is, of course, her own). The actress is extravagantly and at times exhaustively choreographed by Natalie Deryn Johnson: It’s not that movement isn’t graceful and often interesting, but much feels like it’s there for its own sake, not furthering scenario. Christopherson is never still— sometimes just circling, sometimes fussing with unnecessary stage business. This belies Shelley’s described persona as a thoughtful observer, both by choice and as a woman of the period.
We’d no doubt feel more engaged were her intensity directed at us. As it is, I found my eyes (and the eyes of others) wandering, unfocused. This busyness, combined with frequent blackouts, made sustaining emotion difficult (though excepting those intrusions, the lighting was expressive). Having seen Director Isaac Byrne’s wonderfully imaginative and economic The Other Mozart, I wonder at some of the choices here.
Playwright/actress Christopherson credits additional text to Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Goodwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Luigi Galvani. Their contributions are well-integrated, as is presence represented by offstage voices (Wollstonecraft and Shelley are excellent, Byron not so much). The piece is well researched and enacted with brave, fiery abandon, but lacks a point of view beyond what appears to be— from the get-go— madness. We shift from narrated history to Mary’s own feelings, craving more of the latter, including some evolution in behavior.
Besides unidentified Laudanum, Mary drinks from two jars. One contains a mystery yellow liquid; another, that Laudanum (or a second drug) and a floating object I only know to be a heart from having seen it up close before curtain. Gods know what the audience thought it saw.
The title, a double entendre, makes reference to electricity seem like a joke. This is, in fact, a serious work.
The costumes are splendid: Nightgown, vintage, velvet coat, revealing under-slip, and heavy black lab apron all perfectly evoke the era.
The work of Sound Designer Kodi Lynn Milburn is inspired. Storms, voices, classical music (piano/harpsichord), electronic eeriness, and oh, the scratching quill!
Photos: Hunter Canning
The Obscura Factory presents
AMP: The Electrifying Story of Mary Shelley
Written and performed by Jody Christopherson
Directed by Isaac Byrne
Through February 22, 2020
HERE Arts Center, 145 Avenue of the Americas